The King’s Court- Eastern Coneference Finals Preview

LeBron James continued his reign over the city of Chicago, again eliminating the Bulls from postseason play, despite the rare case of being the team undermanned this time around. Kevin Love’s reattached arm was wrapped in a hefty brace and Kyrie Irving hobbled around the court like a 70-year-old man stricken with arthritis before finally taking a permanent seat on the bench with his knee covered by a bulky pad. However, there were the unlikely heroes of Matthew Dellevadova, Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert likely ending Tom Thibodeau’s tenure in the windy city as the Bulls offense conformed to its calling card of slogging, two-traditional big lineups seemingly not realizing that points are generally required to win in the NBA Playoffs. Those unlikely heroes may have to become regular fixtures of impact performance if LeBron is able to secure his fifth straight Finals appearance, and take the sad city of Cleveland to the verge of a championship, a place Clevelanders view to be in the same fantasy realm as the great city of Oz.

The Hawks held off the clutch shot-making of Paul Pierce and accompanying quotes only “The Truth” could muster (curse you Atlanta), by adhering to their Buddy-ball formula of ball movement, crisp cuts and one-for-all motto. In the closeout Game 6, the Hawks forwent late-game Dennis Schroder isolations (Thank God) and instead utilized the style of play that helped them rack up 60 wins in the regular season as Jeff Teague operated pick-and-rolls/pops with Al Horford, while DeMarre Carroll operated basket cuts against the over-helping John Wall. Watching the end of Game 6 offered a faint reminder of the time when people began to believe Atlanta, of all teams, could be the one to topple the King’s Eastern Conference empire. After 45 years and 28 postseason trips of average to good irrelevancy, the Hawks finally matter again.

The Hawks and Cavs are representative of one another’s inverses with the Hawks pinging the ball around as players move in constant motion, while the Cavaliers are reliant upon the solo brilliance of LeBron and Kyrie surrounded by shooters and energetic glue guys. However, analyzing the Hawks-Cavs matchup is far beyond the argument for or against a particular style.

Abiding by the theme of the 2015 Playoffs, health looms as a major factor (yes, I’m looking at you, Kyrie Irving) as Cavs coach David Blatt is struggling to put five man lineups on the court that don’t expose the tragic state of the careers of Shawn Marion, Mike Miller and Kendrick Perkins[1]. Irving’s injury status (and playing status) is in a state of limbo heading into this series after gutting it out for much of the Bulls series before tweaking his knee in the second quarter of Game 6 and sitting out the rest of the way. Irving was still effective offensively against the Bulls spacing the floor with his 3-point shooting and matching his quota of “Wow plays” per game, but his overall usage and impact were hampered and LeBron was faced with the all-too-familiar premise of not getting enough relief from his running mate.

kyrie injury

However, Irving’s injuries made him a complete liability defensively as he was eviscerated by Derrick Rose when matched up against him. Irving, already a minus defender, may have an even more difficult time defensively in this series as he will have to guard either Jeff Teague or relentlessly chase Kyle Korver around with a lower body that seems one step away from shattering into pieces. If Irving guards Teague, Teague’s aggressiveness will be vital. He must consistently look to attack out of the pick-and-roll and in early offense during secondary fastbreaks, something he was hesitant to do in the Wizards series, particularly when John Wall was defending him[2]. If Blatt and the Cavs decide to rid Irving of mercilessly being targeted in pick-and-rolls, they may elect to have him guard Korver, who despite his poor 3-point shooting in the postseason, requires upmost attention, conditioning and movement (not a good combo for the hobbled Irving whose conditioning may be waning due to missed practices, etc.).

teague

It will be interesting to see how Blatt uses the backcourt pairing of Irving and Shumpert defensively. Shumpert is the best perimeter defender the Cavs possess, and it was surprising Blatt didn’t use him more on Rose in the Bulls series, where he was quite effective. Shumpert is better suited to fight through or jump around the pick-and-rolls that will come with defending Teague, and his length will disrupt passing lanes. However, that would put much strain on Irving defending Korver. If Irving isn’t himself offensively, Blatt may consider biting the bullet and playing more defensive-minded lineups featuring Shumpert and Dellevadova, while riding LeBron on the offensive end.

LeBron’s defense is also worth putting under the microscope in this series, not only because of his versatility, but also due to his periods of disinterest. LeBron will match up with Carroll, who has been Atlanta’s most consistent performer in the postseason. If LeBron falls asleep or gets overzealous in his help or Vegas-style gambling on defense, Carroll will burn the Cavs with his perimeter shooting and savvy basket cuts. Expect to see a few tweets during the course of this series, claiming LeBron’s defensive pedigree is built upon media bias more so than actual performance.

Of course, LeBron’s defensive assets are centered upon his versatility, which may come of use in this series. When the Cavs go small with LeBron at the four, the pending lowpost matchup with Millsap could dictate Cleveland’s lineup flexibility. In the Wizards series, Millsap punished Pierce in the post when the Wiz went small, but LeBron should be able to hold his own, offering the Cavs maximum potency offensively, while any decrease in defensive performance would be negligible.

millsap

The Hawks, meanwhile, will designate most of the responsibility of defending the Titanic force that is LeBron James to Carroll, however, it’s worth observing whether Coach Bud will deploy multiple defenders on LeBron, much like his predecessor, Gregg Popovich, did in the last two Finals. The Hawks may assign Kent Bazemore to aggressively pester LeBron knowing that foul trouble won’t be an issue due to his limited rotational minutes. LeBron’s subsequent method of attack would be through postups, which may cause Atlanta to only consider such a matchup when the Cavs play Thompson and Mozgov due to the cramped spacing and easier process of bringing help. Bazemore’s minutes on LeBron would serve only to frustrate him, and perhaps draw a cheap offensive foul. If LeBron’s perimeter shooting continues to imitate that of Rajon Rondo, the Hawks may choose to guard him with a bigger defender such as Millsap or Horford who are willing to concede perimeter jumpers in an effort to dissuade his physically domineering attacks on the rim.

lebron vs carroll

Defending LeBron is a complex difficulty that nearly every team in the league faces, helplessly tossing defenders at him, but the Hawks defensive schematics and personnel aren’t well equipped to deal with Cleveland’s vanilla, iso-heavy offense. Although offensive isolations are often referenced in demeaning terms, they are utilized within team’s offenses for a reason; often because opponents do not have individual defenders with the necessary skillset to deter explosive and versatile playmakers. In the Hawks case, defending isolations has been an issue throughout the postseason, as they have allowed 0.93 points per possession, the highest mark of any team. The Hawks haven’t been able to force teams into crowded, desperation shots at the basket with the shot clock dwindling in isolation situations that has caused the negative association with the term. In fact, only the Spurs have allowed a higher field goal percentage[3] in isolation situations this postseason. However, unlike San Antonio, Atlanta has embellished in a troubling trend during the postseason of bailing out opponents and sending them to the line in isolation situations, after posting the fifth-best mark in that category during the regular season. [4] The lack of efficiency defending isolations, combined with questionable rim protection could send the Hawks swirling into a pit of doom trying to handle LeBron and Irving.

Another defensive liability of Atlanta is the papier-mâché-type resistance it has been prone to impose on the boards. The Hawks were the fourth-worst rebounding team in the NBA during the regular season, and although a great portion of that inspires from the deficiencies in obtaining second-chance opportunities, its defensive rebounding rate bested just seven squads. The Hawks have substantially improved their glass eating in the playoffs, but it lingers as a liability, especially with the duo of Thompson and Mozgov hunting offensive rebounds with ferocity equal to wolves searching for red meat.

thompson

The Cavs offensive rebounding rate of 28 percent ranks second among teams in the postseason, and of players averaging at least 15 minutes per game this postseason, Thompson and Mozgov rank third and seventh, respectively, in offensive rebounding percentage. Even when the Cavs have gone small this postseason with lineups featuring a point guard, J.R. Smith, Shumpert, LeBron and Thompson, they’ve been scarfing up offensive rebounds at an astounding rate. In those small ball lineups, Thompson has been an energetic force navigating the gaps in the opposition’s defense due to the attention devoted to shooters to get to the rim and compete for second-chance points.

This matchup features a collective array of one team’s strengths against the others weaknesses, meaning the team representing the East in the Finals may only be as good as their most fatal flaws. In other words, this series will call for overcoming one’s most liable blemishes. Sounds a lot like survival…well these are the 2015 NBA Playoffs.

Prediction: Cavs in 6.

[1] Yeah I took a shot at these guys when I was wrote about the Bulls series way back when. I don’t have anything against them (in fact, Perk is awesome), it’s just so indicative of the Cavs porous rotation at this point.

[2] Maybe because Wall is a freakish defender, and embarrassed Teague on multiple occasions by cleanly picking his pocket in the open court.

[3] By a very thin margin: Spurs 44.4 FG%– Hawks 44.3 FG%.

[4] In the playoffs, the Hawks are sending opponents to the line on 15.7 percent of possessions, third worst in the postseason. In the regular season the Hawks sent opponents to the line on just 10.6 percent, tied for fifth best in the NBA.

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