Tuesday, May 05, 2009

A Prediction, a Litany of Worries, and a Glimmer of Hope

I'm on record picking* the Cavs to win in 4. I take no pleasure in that. Here's why I'm worried.

*Take comfort, if you wish, in my previous prediction of the Hawks getting swept in the playoffs.

I'm skeptical about how effective Marvin Williams will be even if deemed healthy enough to play. In Game 1 against Miami, Marvin played just 17 minutes. He can't be presumed to have either his legs or wind at this point and both figure to go faster than normal when forced to attempt to deal with the MVP. That Williams was allowed to play in Game 6 against Miami despite not having the use of his right hand makes me skeptical that he'll truly be himself (as he was against Miami before hurting his wrist) even in limited minutes. Without Williams the Hawks lack anyone capable of slowing LeBron even intermittently assuming they don't want to run Joe Johnson ragged on both ends of the court.

In four games against the Hawks this season, Mo Williams scored 23.3 points per game in 36.5 minutes per game, made 55.6% of his two-point attempts, half of his 22 three-point attempts, earned 15 assists, and turned the ball over just five times. No Hawks player can keep Mo Williams in front of him. Well, Joe Johnson probably could but, again, the Hawks likely can't afford him to do so for long stretches and overcome the full attention of Cleveland's defense for 40+ minutes game in, game out.

Cleveland's defense is a lot better than Miami's defense and the Hawks operated at 96.5% of their 2008-09 offensive efficiency in the first-round series. Some (but not all) of that inefficiency is down to Marvin Williams playing just 12% and Al Horford just 51% of Atlanta's minutes. In 36 playoff games (809 minutes) Flip Murray is now a career 32.9 2PTFG% and a 23.7 3PTFG% shooter. Those percentages rose on the back of his 38/29 shooting in the first round. The kind and caliber of player that Flip exploits so admirably just doesn't see a lot of playing time in the playoffs leaving Flip to struggle against bigger defenders and limiting the potency of Atlanta's bench.

Atlanta's defense struggled all year to guard the entire floor when forced to do so. In addition to aforementioned difficulty of slowing LeBron James and Mo Williams at the point of attack there's no one on which the Hawks can hide Mike Bibby without consequence (though Delonte West missed a massive number of shots in the two games in Atlanta this season), Zydrunas Ilgauskas will pull Al Horford or Zaza Pachulia away from the basket to score, and he, Anderson Varejao, and Ben Wallace can attack the offensive glass with relative impunity when Atlanta's interior defenders have to help on James and Williams. That last bit could turn a slightly above average offensive rebounding team (T12 during the regular season) into a dominant one.

Finally, a hopeful sign...

Cleveland didn't evidence a huge amount of respect for the Hawks' ability to beat them during their regular season matchups. Not that they openly disrespected the Hawks in a belittling manner it's just that the Cavaliers exuded a confidence in their superiority that, at times, manifested itself in lackadaisical basketball. It's understandable they'd coast for stretches during their two blowout home wins. They did the same, though, in both games in Atlanta.

From my recap of Cleveland's narrow, mildly controversial 88-87 win in Atlanta:
LeBron James got a couple free trips tot he free throw line over the course of the game and Joe Johnson missed a pretty open 18-footer at the buzzer but the Hawks lost last night's game in the first half, allowing Cleveland to score 1.17 points per possession on the strength of good shooting (52.3 eFG%) and a lot of second chances (35 OR%) when the Cavs missed a shot.

Cleveland, in turn, only almost lost the game with a lackadaisical third quarter. The Hawks defensive resistance was so slight in the first half that the Cavaliers appeared to open the second half operating on the premise that good shots would always be there and thus should not be cherished. The Cavaliers shot selection, coupled with a better defensive effort from the Hawks (especially on the defensive glass) created an opportunity for Atlanta to get back in the game.
A focused Cleveland team, which they may or may not be by the time Game 3 rolls around, would not have let the Hawks back in that game. At the same time, an energized and committed Hawks team, which they surely must be from the jump in Game 3, doesn't dig that first half hole.

Atlanta's 97-92 victory on December 13th was the back end of a back-to-back for Cleveland, who were without both Ilgauskas and Boobie Gibson. Two excerpts from my recap of that game:
Bob Rathbun hit the nail on the head when he mentioned how tired both teams looked in the second quarter...

Cleveland's 11-game winning streak ended with an atypical win for the Hawks, fueled not by field goal defense, forcing turnovers, and making three-pointers but by out-rebounding their opponent on both ends of the court and getting to the free throw line a ton. It was a team effort on both counts. Mike Bibby and Joe Johnson took more than half of Atlanta's field goals but Marvin Williams and Al Horford led the parade to the charity stripe as six of eight Hawks attempted at least four free throws. Similarly, five Hawks corralled between six and eight rebounds on a night when there were few rebounds to be had.
Cleveland might well render any Atlanta effort in Cleveland irrelevant. They are a significantly better basketball team in possession of a tremendous home court advantage. Cleveland's 41-2 at home for crying out loud with the second of those losses coming by a single point in game #82 with LeBron James, Mo Williams, and Ilgauskas all inactive. The Hawks are highly unlikely to win either Game 1 or 2. I think they're only marginally more likely to win either Game 3 or 4 at home without both Marvin Williams and Al Horford are physically capable of contributing in that manner the Hawks will have a good chance of winning at least one of Games 3 and 4. I think it's worth waiting on Marvin's return to maximum possible health in order to increase the likelihood of winning the games at home.

1 comment:

Ryne Nelson said...

Excellent break down. I agree the Hawks are too beat up to take a game from the Cavs, especially if the Cavs don't come out rusty. Two players who would cause problems for the Cavs are injured. It's going to be a brutal series for Hawks fans.