In a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers will face the Atlanta Hawks beginning Monday night in the second round of the NBA playoffs. Last year, the Cavs swept the Hawks in the postseason. These teams also met three times in the 2015–16 regular season, and the Cavaliers won all three matchups.
According to Cleveland star LeBron James, the Hawks will be motivated by last year’s elimination.
“I think they’re still a well-coached, well-balanced group of guys,” James told reporters recently. “They’re obviously going to be motivated by what happened last year, and we look forward to them playing their best basketball. It’s not for me to talk about the difference between last year. I can only focus on this year, and they’re a very good team.”
The Cavaliers want a title more than ever after losing in the Finals to the Warriors without two key players, point guard Kyrie Irving and power forward Kevin Love. Could this be the Cavs’ year? First, they will have to take care of the Atlanta Hawks. Here are three things that could determine who clinches the series.
Can the Hawks veterans and their stifling defense stop the Cavs’ offensive machine?
Atlanta is feeling confident after taking down the Celtics. Veterans such as Paul Millsap, Al Horford, and Kyle Korver look ready to face the Cavaliers. The Hawks defense is impressive and needs to stay that way consistently for Atlanta to win this series.
The Hawks averaged 8.6 blocks per game against Boston. In Game 2 of that series, they limited the Celtics to a mere seven points in the first quarter. In case you were wondering, that is the fewest total allowed in a quarter in playoff history since the adoption of the shot clock in 1954.
Millsap and Horford will need to out rebound the Cavaliers’ big men. The Hawks must shut down key scorers like Irving, Love, and James if they hope to move on to the next round.
Which team holds the backcourt edge?
The Cavs are a much better team this year. They are healthy, and they are coming off a sweep of the Detroit Pistons with a week of rest. Plus, the Cavs backcourt looks ready to dominate.
Cleveland’s high scorer in the first-round sweep of the Pistons was not LeBron James, but Irving. Irving became only the second teammate to outscore James in a playoff series. Previously, Dwyane Wade did this in the 2011 Finals. Irving averaged 27.5 points and blew by Detroit’s defense by hitting 47% of his three-pointers.
Another backcourt threat is J.R. Smith, who recently set the Cavs’ single-season three-point record by sinking more than 200 this year. He is also 40% from behind the arc.
Finally, the Cavs have Matthew Dellavedova. He is scrappy and annoys every opponent on the court, and he hits 41% of his threes.
Atlanta’s guards, Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder, need to contain Irving, Smith, and Dellavedova to give the Hawks a chance to advance.
Can anyone stop LeBron?
LeBron James is one of the best scorers in the game. He averaged 30.3 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 9.3 assists against the Hawks in last year’s Eastern Conference finals.
His effort against the Warriors in the Finals was even more heroic. He became the first player in NBA Finals history to lead both teams in points, assists, and rebounds for the entire series and delivered 38.3% of Cleveland’s points in that series. Only Michael Jordan put up better numbers, when he scored 38.4% of the Bulls’ points in the 1993 Finals, which Chicago won.
James will clearly be motivated by last year’s elimination. This year, barring injuries, he won’t be forced to take over and carry the team on his back. He will have plenty of help from Irving, Love, Smith, and a more experienced team.
The Cavaliers look like they are in a good position to take care of the Hawks if they can play like they did against the Pistons.
Photos: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images (Hawks-Cavs 2015 playoffs, James); Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images (Horford); Jason Miller/Getty Images (Irving)