Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Distant Voice Previews the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals

The 60-win Atlanta Hawks are underdogs in this series.
This makes some kind of sense. David Griffin made the gold-standard GM move this summer by signing LeBron James as a free agent. He made a big, bold offseason trade to add Kevin Love. He made two good in-season trades in a three-day period* to add JR Smith and Iman Shumpert and a first-round pick while simultaneously shedding Dion Waiters**, then acquire Timofey Mozgov to fill an Anderson Varejao-shaped void for the OKC first-round pick they got for Waiters and another future, protected first-rounder. 

The Cavaliers are good. They have the ten-time reigning best player in basketball, they’ve consistently been in the news for positive and/or interesting transactions, and they’re much better on offense than defense.
*Coming six and eight days, respectively, after Cleveland’s second loss to the Hawks this season.


The 2014-15 Hawks came into being in the summers of 2012 and 2013. They have done nothing interesting off the court (which, sadly, isn’t the same as saying they’ve had nothing interesting off the court done unto them) since. They balance an obviously above-average offense with an atypical above-average defense. The Hawks lack* a franchise player, and they lack direct, or indirect, franchise success.

*NOTE: Does not apply to Al Horford during the 2015 Eastern Conference Semifinals.

What’s different about the Hawks this year? They’re healthier, mostly, and that enabled them to trust the processes they put in place. Feel that excitement. No? Try this...
The Atlanta Hawks are going to win the Eastern Conference Finals in 5 games.
So. Hmm. How?
Short version: the Cavaliers are a poor defensive team that doesn’t match up well with the Hawks.
Long version: Lacking the best player in the series (clearly), the Hawks will counter with the second- through sixth-best players. While David Blatt et al. face the unenviable task of identifying Cleveland’s best five-man unit for this series on the fly, Mike Budenholzer knows. More importantly, he has slooooowly demonstrated a willingness to deploy his five-best players for long minutes.  

Cleveland has a choice: prop up their subpar point-of-attack defense with a heavy dose of the Thompson/Mozgov duo (added benefit on the other end of the floor: many offensive rebounds) to protect the paint, or play a single big in order to spread the floor on offense to punish the Hawks for helping each other as much on defense as they do on offense, and reap the whirlwind on the defensive end.  

Neither option is ideal for Cleveland because neither option offers a satisfactory answer to the question, “Who does Kyrie Irving attempt to guard?” Does he defend the Atlanta point guard, leaving Cleveland vulnerable to the pick-and-rolls that bedeviled the last three times the teams met during the regular season? Does he attempt to hide on DeMarre Carroll, which doesn’t really seem a recipe for limiting Atlanta’s open three-point attempts or layups, and may create the only scenario wherein Mike Budenholzer encourages offensive rebounding?  

The Cavs' issues cascade from there: JR Smith* or Shumpert forced to chase Korver for 38 minutes, multiple Cavs forced to cross-match in defensive transition, every potentially devastating instance of LeBron helping on D carrying a risk that could be exploited by one pass from the pass-happiest team in the league.

*Smith has serious defensive scapegoat potential in this series, even if he does little wrong, if Korver starts making 47% of his 3PTAs again.

Beyond that, as long as Irving is limited by injury, the Cavaliers become easier for the Hawks to guard. Basically, the Hawks should defend LeBron James the way they defended John Wall in Games 5 and 6:
  • Let him create for himself (jumpshots encouraged)
  • Do not help off shooters in the corners
  • Live with everyone but Kyrie Irving taking above-the-break threes
  • Do help late at the rim
Well, actually: LeBron James is much better than John Wall and the rest of what's left of the Cavs is arguably better than Wall's supporting cast.

Well, actually redux: the latter difference is not as great as the defensive difference between the two teams. That’s where the Hawks have to punish Cleveland.  

However, Cleveland’s defensive limitations pose a risk to the Hawks in this series. Unlike their matchup against the Bizarro Playoff Wizards, the Hawks will have to turn the math of two- and three-point shots into their favor this series. Cleveland will likely be willing to give up pick-and-roll created layups rather than pick-and-roll created threes. The Hawks need to make the same trade when LeBron creates in isolation.  

Furthermore, a willingness to let LeBron James attempt to single-handedly outscore the Hawks might, in one fell swoop, help mitigate Thabo Sefolosha’s absence, help keep DeMarre Carroll out of potentially devastating foul trouble, and limit the available energy for James to be an effective help defender. 

These Hawks will never be as good as they were from November 28th to January 30th this season* but that Hawks team is not their opponent. Nor is the Cavs team that didn't get above .500 for good until January 16th, or the Cavs team that went on its own 32-7 run (with 21 double-digit wins). What's left of the Hawks just has to be better than what's left of the Cavs for four of the next seven games.

*And nothing should diminish the unadulterated joy 33-2 brought so many right-thinking people. Not even whatever the Warriors might do to the Hawks in the NBA Finals.

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