Round 2 Riot: (4) Hawks vs. (1) Cavaliers
FanHouse previews each round of the NBA Playoffs.
After the Hawks forced the eventual champion Celtics to seven games in the first round of the playoffs a season ago, they had matured enough this year to win a Game 7 and advance to the second round for the first time in 10 years. We'll find out in a hurry if they'll be simply happy to get there, or if they can actually provide a challenge to Mr. MVP and the only unbeaten team left in the post-season: the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Reason to Watch
If LeBron James alone doesn't do it for you, there's a chance that this could be a pretty entertaining (if ultimately lopsided) matchup. Despite what we saw from the Hawks in their first round series with the Heat -- where they seemingly won by 20 or lost by 20 without any in-between -- Atlanta actually was more competitive than most were with Cleveland during the regular season, at least for three out of the four meetings. The Hawks beat the Cavs once at home, lost another one by a single point, and lost their last meeting of the year in Cleveland by just six points. And against a Cavs team that led the league in point differential at almost nine a game, that's saying something.
How Atlanta Can Win
The Hawks need to try to play at their tempo, and allow their more athletic guys to get up and down the floor for some easy baskets in transition. They must shoot well from three-point land, forcing Cleveland's defense to spread the floor which might help open things inside for Josh Smith to jump over people like he did against the Heat. And, they have to find a way to steal one on the road, which is going to be extremely difficult against a team that lost their just once all season. (I know it was twice -- the last game of the season where they sat leBron against the Sixers doesn't count.)
How Cleveland Can Win
If the Cavaliers defend the way they have all year, they should have little trouble with the Hawks. Atlanta thrives on athletic plays in transition or inside during its halfcourt sets to force the defense to collapse, which opens up the perimeter for their three-point shooters. Stop the fast breaks and slow the tempo, and all those threes that were falling last series (especially the 11-of-23 that went down in Game 7) will be a lot tougher for the Hawks to knock down. It's started and ended with defense all season for the Cavs; no reason that should change now.
Video Clip to Get You Pumped
LeBron YouTubes are bourgeois. Besides, this sick play from Joe Johnson to seal one of the Hawks' wins over the heavily favored Celtics in last year's playoffs should be a reminder to fans in both Cleveland and Atlanta that this Hawks team can scrap in the post-season, no matter who their opponent is.
Stud of the Series
No one doubts that LeBron will leave his mark here when all's said and done, but if you're looking for an alternative, how about Joe Johnson? For the series against Miami -- although he did lead the team in scoring at 17.1 points per game -- Johnson was barely a point better than Josh Smith, and less than two points better than Mike Bibby. Balance only goes so far in the big games, however, and Johnson came up big in Game 7, with 27 points, while hitting six of his eight three-point attempts. Atlanta is going to need to see more performances like that one if they hope to make this a long series.
Atlanta's ability to play from behind. There wasn't a single game in the team's first round series with the Heat where the lead changed after the first quarter. And even though the Hawks were on the right side of those blowouts one more time than Miami was, they're not likely to get out to enormous leads against this Cavs team. If the Hawks give up and mentally check out when the going gets tough in round two, this will be a very short series.
All of our experts like Cleveland to advance, although with varying degrees of difficulty:
Cavs in 4: Ziller, Bacon, Watson. (Moore too, I think, but his official prediction was "Cleveland in 2:00")
Cavs in 5: Yours truly.
Cavs in 6: Jones, Steinmetz.