Opinion: Why the Atlanta Hawks’ magical ride will end in Cleveland
The Eastern Conference Finals begin in Atlanta and some milestones will be reached at tip-off on Wednesday night.
LeBron James will be making his fifth consecutive trip to the conference finals; the previous four trips were as a member of the Miami Heat. The Hawks will be making the franchise’s first ever appearance in it’s current incarnation. The “Hawks” franchise was previously a conference finalist when they inhabited the city of St. Louis.
Unfortunately for the current version of the Hawks this isn’t the 50’s and those aren’t your dad’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
Even with LeBron James playing at a sub-par level (LeBron was technically no slouch, he did have a near triple-double with 11 assist and nine rebounds to go with his 15 points) during Game 6 of the semi-finals in Chicago, the Cavs still managed to beat the Bulls by 21 points lead by–you guessed it–Matthew Dellavedova.
Yes Hawks fans, this Cavaliers team is deep enough to have it’s backup point guard score 19 points and it’s one-time backup power forward Tristan Thompson gather 17 rebounds to go along with his 13 points. The Cavaliers have the one thing both of the Hawkss two previous playoff opponents didn’t: bench depth.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have been under a public microscope since LeBron announced he was coming back home during the summer of 2014. The off-season addition of power forward and four time All-Star Kevin Love and the maturation of All-Star point guard Kyrie “The Bus Driver” Irving raised the already high (and some may say unrealistic) expectations for the Cavaliers. Mid-season trades for former New York Knicks Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov (who came to Cleveland via Denver) left no room for anything but a title in Cleveland. The Atlanta Hawks are in the way and unfortunately for their fans, they must be dealt with.
My predictions for the Eastern Conference Finals are as follows.
Games 1 and 2 in Atlanta will be both entertaining and a message to those who put too much stock in the NBA regular season. Atlanta went 3-1 against Cleveland this season, but there’s a certain caveat that must be expressed: LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Timofey Mizgov, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson as a unit have never lost to the Hawks. That is the Cleveland starting lineup at the moment and after 10 postseason games (a first round sweep of Boston and a six-game series victory over the Bulls in the semifinals) Cleveland looks 180 degrees different from the team that Atlanta faced during the regular season.
LeBron James missed one of those contest with a strained knee. I have the Cavs winning both games on the road and finishing the series in Cleveland for a sweep and ultimately a trip to the NBA Finals. Another milestone reached: This would be LeBron’s fifth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. Here’s why.
The Cleveland Cavaliers 2.0 are a fierce rebounding team
Thompson and Mozgov make their livings hitting the offensive and defensive boards. Let’s use the Game 6 blowout victory over Chicago as an example: Thompson had six and Mozgov had four–more than the entire Bulls roster combined.
The biggest play of the Hawks’ win over Washington during their Game 5 victory was an offensive rebound and game winning put back by center Al Horford. The Wizard big men, Nene and Marcin Gortat, were consistently out rebounded that night and for many of the previous games. The Cavaliers won’t easily be beaten off of the boards; Mozgov, Thompson, James and Shumpert are all very solid rebounders, crashing the offensive and defensive boards. Advantage Cleveland.
The Hawks will not be granted the three-point shooting opportunities that the Wizards gave them.
The Cleveland Cavaliers held the Chicago Bulls (admittedly not the caliber of a three-point shooting team as the Hawks) to 4-20 (20 percent) shooting from behind the arch. If that was a priority during the Bulls series there’s no doubt that the Cavaliers coaching staff will make it the ultimate priority during the conference finals. No open three-point opportunities means no wins for the Hawks. Advantage Cleveland.
Kyrie Irving is rested and should be 100 percent for Game 1.
The Atlanta Hawks two-headed point guard tandem of Jeff Teague and his backup Dennis Schroder took full advantage of an injured John Wall (Wall hurt his left hand during a game 1 Wizard victory) and rightfully so. Wall still played Games 5 and 6 with heart and was occasionally explosive on offense. Irving, a better outside shooter and pure scorer than Wall, is coming into this series with a lot to prove after a so-so semifinals.
The foot soreness that affected Irving should be gone and a fully effective (his averages of 19.8 points per game during the postseason are a few ticks down from his regular season average of 21.7 per) All-Star Game starting point guard should be present. Despite the solid play by both Teague and Schroder, neither is the player that Irving is. Advantage Cleveland.
No Home Court Advantage
The moment the Atlanta fans that will undoubtedly fill the once-vacant seats at Phillips Arena see that the Hawks are falling behind and on the verge of losing the “home court advantage”, they will leave the building and the series will become a LeBron James lovefest.
The fickle Atlanta sports fans have done it for years to both the Braves and the Falcons. The only reason the Hawks haven’t truly felt the sting of desertion is because this is the first time the Hawks have been in this situation. The way the front office and coaching staff have constructed the Hawks roster, it probably won’t be the last, but this trip will end in four games. Final Advantage: Cleveland Cavaliers.