At the start of the 2016 NBA Playoffs, it was hard to picture anything but a Finals rematch between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. It’s funny how quickly things can change. From the moment an injury bug took hold of the Western Conference, the entire playoff picture has been thrown into chaos.
And while this has the potential to derail Golden States’ chances of going back-to-back, unless the sickness spreads to the East, there’s no reason why the Cavs shouldn’t coast to their second straight Finals appearance. At least, that’s what most people probably think. Then again, most people are probably not the Atlanta Hawks.
After getting through a pesky Boston Celtics club in a hard-fought six-game series, the East’s No. 4 seed is looking to accomplish something they haven’t done all season: Beat the Cavaliers. In the three meetings between these two clubs in 2015-16, Cleveland has beaten Atlanta by an average of almost 10 points per game. For a Hawks team looking to pull off an upset, this isn’t exactly inspiring.
Of course, as we should all know by now anything’s possible in the postseason. The truth is, no one really knows how this series will play out. Not until the teams suit up and take the floor, anyways. Still, with Game 1 set to tip off on Monday night, it’d be a crime for us to not at least take our best guess.
Both of these clubs have what it takes to come out of this showdown victorious (and we’ll show you why), however, when it’s all said and done, this is what we think will ultimately end up happening.
The case for the Cavaliers
Contrary to what dispatching the Pistons in four games might look like to the outside observer, the No. 1-seeded Cavs were actually pushed in their first-round series. And the way we see it, this was exactly what the defending Eastern Conference champions needed. In fact, getting challenged this early in the postseason has only made LeBron James and company rise to the challenge.
Entering the conference semifinals, Cleveland is harnessing the best offense in the East. Against Detroit, the Cavs put up 103.5 points per game while leading the NBA with an offensive rating of 115.8 or 120.4 (depending on if you look at NBA.com or Basketball Reference). And best of all, this was a balanced attack; one featuring the latest installment of the Big Three at its finest.
As expected, James was practically unstoppable against the Pistons. In just over 41 minutes a night, he averaged 22.8 points, nine rebounds, and 6.8 assists. But as we noted before, he was hardly the only Cavalier doing work on the offensive end of the floor. Kyrie Irving led the squad with 27.5 points per game and shot 47.1% from three-point range while Kevin Love came through with 18.8 points and 12 rebounds per game.
It’s difficult enough stopping the Cavs when one of these superstars is in a groove. It’s almost impossible to do so when they’re all feeling it. Fortunately, if there’s any team in the Eastern Conference with the defensive chops to limit the offensive juggernaut that is the Cleveland Cavaliers, it’s the Atlanta Hawks.
The case for the Hawks
This year’s Atlanta Hawks team is not the same as the one that went 60-22 in the 2014-15 season and had the sixth best offensive rating (108.9) in the entire NBA. Despite a lineup still featuring the likes of Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Al Horford, and sharpshooter Kyle Korver, this particular Hawks team is more reliant on its defensive capabilities than ever before.
This is why it’s good that the group with a defensive rating of 101.4 (second in the league) on the year carried that trait over into the postseason. In six games against the Celtics, the Hawks allowed just 93.8 points per game and finished with a defensive rating of 91.3. That’s not to say that Atlanta will be able to repeat this performance when it goes up against Cleveland.
However, if the Hawks can come anywhere close to these figures, then they might stand a chance at defeating the beast of the East. Aside from coming up big on the defensive end of the floor, the Hawks would be wise to limit second-chance opportunities. The best way to do this: rebounding. In these playoffs, Atlanta leads all teams with 39 defensive rebounds per game and is second with 47.5 total boards per game. Keeping the Cavs off the glass will be vital to the Hawks’ success. Again, this is easier said than done.
During the three regular-season games between the Cavs and the Hawks, Cleveland came away victorious in all of them. In this postseason meeting, we expect that to change. Atlanta will win — one game. With James, Irving, and Love playing at such a high level, the Cavaliers simply have too much firepower at their disposal. Atlanta’s stifling defense should keep the team in the series. But in the end, the King will play in the conference finals.
Prediction: Cleveland Cavaliers in five