NBA Eastern Conference Finals – Atlanta Hawks v Cleveland Cavaliers
The Eastern Conference Finals pits a team assembled to win it all against one that surprised most with a 60-win top seed season. The Cleveland Cavaliers have had their share of ups and downs this campaign with injuries, form slumps and plenty of individual brilliance. Less headlines further south in Georgia – just team-first play, ball movement and Ws. The Hawks took the season series 3-1, but the only relevant result was a 9-point win to Atlanta at home in March.
Atlanta’s playoff form has been unconvincing, with two losses a piece to Brooklyn and Washington. For the critics who had questioned their credentials these were highly-anticipated stumbles. Some say a healthy John Wall would have been sufficient to see the Wizards take their place but with the Hawks it’s never been about satisfying pundits’ questions. Again and again they advance.
The Cavs post-season has received more favourable reviews. Boston were dispatched in 4, but the Bulls almost found themselves with a 3-1 lead before falling away badly. The one-sided nature of that series has been over-stated, but not Chicago’s failings.
Key to this series is the health of two-thirds of Cleveland’s Big 3. Kevin Love is done and dusted and while you could never say he truly felt at home in this setup he undeniably makes them better. In saying that, Tristan Thompson has stepped in and performed well. But Love’s absence brings the teams closer. Then there is Kyrie Irving who is seriously hobbled. As storied a career as D-Wade has had, a fully fit Irving arguably represents a better partner for LeBron. But he’s not fully fit and therein lies the problem. Form in these playoffs though is for injured players to perform heroically (Conley, CP3) so let’s factor him in at the high-end of his potential production.
Elsewhere former Knicks boys J.R. Smith & Shumpert have talent but inconsistent tendencies. LeBron himself is peerless and will dominate in patches. DeMarre Carroll shapes as a decent defensive option but his mountain of work is likely to detract from his recent uptick in offensive contribution.
For the Hawks to win, starting guards Teague and Korver must lift on recent efforts. Teague dictating offensive pace and Korver knocking down his threes. They have a potential advantage inside where All-stars Millsap and Horford give up inches but have more tricks than their counterparts Mozgov and Thompson.
If it comes down to coaching Atlanta win hands-down as the difference in buy-in from their respective player groups is enormous, led of course by King James. But in this incarnation, right now, Atlanta don’t quite have the talent, consistency or form, to defy LeBron’s brilliance.
Tip: Cleveland in 7.