The Atlanta Hawks are in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since moving to Atlanta and despite being the No. 1 seed are underdogs to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Can they make it a series? Here is what our writers had to say about the matchup.
What has surprised you the most so far in the playoffs? (Hawks related or otherwise)
(Jason Walker) That Mike Muscala has forced his way onto the court as much as he has. I love this development, but have to say it is unexpected this postseason. Next no, I wouldn't have been surprised, but this year? Certainly.
(Patrick Laney) Overall, I am surprised how the Clippers have gotten enough from their bench to play like a contender. With respect to the Hawks, the emergence of Mike Muscala as a two-way threat off the bench has provided sorely needed consistency for the Hawks.
(Mark Phelps) I have been really surprised by the coaching calls this postseason -- Thibs trying to come back with Rose on the bench (and Gasol on the bench for a while), McHale actually coming back with Harden on the bench, Coach Bud sticking with Dennis (I know Jeff helped this, but still), Irving on the bench for most of the second half of game six. There is a surprising amount of stars riding the pine in crunch time when they aren't delivering. Certainly it seems logical to do this, but it's against traditional NBA coaching, and I am happy to see it, as I feel it represents a newer, more efficient, less ego-driven NBA.
(Brad Rowland) The shooting woes of Kyle Korver. In fairness, Korver is still knocking down 35% of his threes in the postseason, and that would be a more than reasonable number for just about anyone. However, Korver has missed a great deal of looks that he would normally convert with regularity, and that came to a head in the Washington series with some inexplicable shooting performances. Everyone goes through "slumps", but this one is a bit surprising.
(Kris Willis) From an overall standpoint, I was surprised that San Antonio lost in the first round and then that the Clippers weren't able to capitalize on a 3-1 lead over the Rockets. The playoffs so far have been overwhelmingly entertaining and there is no reason to expect the conference finals to be any different.
Are you surprised by Atlanta's performance in the playoffs?
(JW) I am not surprised they have gone further than any other Atlanta Hawks team, ever, because they proved themselves throughout the season as being one of the top four teams in the league. Top two, in fact. But one thing that did surprise me was the mental lapses in confidence and effort. I would not have foreseen Bud having to empty the bench to get the guys back on track to beat the Wizards, but you could argue that it did just that.
(PL) Yes, but not in a good way. I am glad Atlanta has shown resilience, but the poor shooting has been an unpleasant surprise. It is hard to believe that Kyle Korver has had a greater impact with his defensive havoc hands than his soft touch.
(MP) Not at all, if you're talking about how far the Hawks have come. I love this team and they have unreal potential. I am a little surprised how poorly we have shot in the postseason, but the fact that we didn't have to go to seven games in either series while not shooting well just makes me that more resolute in my belief that this is the team to take us to the Finals.
(BR) Not particularly. Most (including myself) felt that there would be a bit of transition in terms of regular season to playoffs with this group, and we've seen that. Admittedly, the Brooklyn series was more of a challenge than I thought, but that had a lot more to do with some impressive individual performances by the Nets than anything else. Washington was always going to be a legitimate opponent, and the Hawks dispatched of the Wizards in six games while closing things out in an opposing venue. The Hawks aren't firing on all cylinders in a "January Hawks" kind of way, but the defense has picked things up when the offense lagged, and style points are overrated.
(KW) I am not surprised that the Hawks are in the Eastern Conference Finals, but I am a bit surprised by the way they have gotten there. Much attention was given to Atlanta's wide open offensive attack, but it has been their defense that led to them breaking through the second round. That is an impressive especially when you factor in the loss of Thabo Sefolosha.
Who is the most important player for the Hawks against the Cavaliers?
(JW) DeMarre Carroll not wearing out having to take LeBron. Carroll was arguably the best offensive piece the Hawks had throughout the Wizards series, so we need him to be both Defensive DeMarre and the DeMarre that inspires so many nicknames on Twitter when he scores.
(PL) THORford. He was the best player against the Wizards. This is his prime. This is his time. This is his series. Thankfully, he will not be dumb enough to say series on his next clutch shot.
(MP) Jeff Teague. Injuries aside, he's the guy who's gonna be needed to start the offensive attack to the Cleveland middle (and points in the paint are gonna count BIG here, folks). With Kyrie hurt, he becomes even more potent, and Cleveland may have to take Irving off the floor for long stretches so that someone else can chase Jeff down.
(BR) DeMarre Carroll. This was a photo finish between Carroll and Jeff Teague, but Carroll's defensive assignment against LeBron James pushes things over the top. In the absence of Thabo Sefolosha, Carroll is the only wing defender on the roster capable of shadowing James, and Mike Budenholzer may be tempted to simply match the two players in terms of substitution patterns. Defending LeBron is, obviously, a huge task, but the Hawks will also need DeMarre to win his individual match-up on the other end, picking up where he left off with some stellar offensive showings in the first two rounds.
(KW) This is always a difficult question to answer when it comes to the Hawks. They are all important to the success of the group and its hard to quantify one over the other. You could make a case for any of the starters, but I am going with Kyle Korver who is mired in his worst shooting slump of the season. He garnered a ton of attention from Washington and admittedly rushed some open looks. He shot just 31 percent from the field overall and 28 percent from three-point range against the Wizards. Atlanta is going to need much more than that from him if they hope to beat the Cavs.
Other than LeBron, which Cavs player most concerns you?
(JW) Tristan Thompson and his thousand of offensive rebounds. The Hawks really don't need to give LeBron multiple chances to score on a single possession.
(PL) Kyrie...if healthy. Jeff has outplayed him at times, but Irving can light him up when healthy. I do not see another matchup advantage for the Cavs.
(MP) Iman Shumpert. Washington played excellent defense against the Hawks and Beal did wonders keeping Korver on lockdown, which kept Atlanta away from supernova territory and kept the Wiz kids in the game. You can bet Cleveland was watching and that Iman Shumpert will get a similar assignment. If Kyle's relentless cuts can find him better looks in this series, the Hawks could come out hot, but if Shumpert has his way, it may be another grind-it-out kind of series.
(BR) This should probably be "other than LeBron and Kyrie", but because it isn't, I'll take Mr. Irving. Kyrie is banged up in a significant way, which levels the playing field considerably, and Jeff Teague playing Cleveland's point guard to anything resembling a "draw" would be enormous. Still, Irving is capable of scoring 35 points on any given night if he has things going offensively, and without the wild card of throwing DeMarre Carroll on him to slow things down (which Bud can't do with LeBron on the floor), it will be interesting to see how Teague and Dennis Schröder handle things defensively. If Kyrie Irving is hampered and/or unable to play, keep an eye on J.R. Smith, who is easily Cleveland's best spot-up shooter at this point.
(KW) I will go with Timofey Mozgov who has been the anchor of Cleveland's defense since arriving in a midseason trade. Mozgov has a defensive rating of 90.4 and a net rating of 11.6 in the playoffs. The Hawks will need a strong series from Al Horford in an effort to pull him away from the basket.
(JW) Hawks in seven, baby! Get ready, America!
(PL) I had Hawks in 6 for the first 2 rounds, so I am going to keep riding it. DeMarre has had success against LeBron for nearly 2 seasons now and Atlanta has to make some shots at some point. The Atlanta bench has found itself enough to push the Hawks to the NBA Finals.
(MP) Basically, it's the same as the first two rounds: the Hawks are the better team here. But you don't get a free pass for finishing first, so you have to go out and play like the better team. Look for the Hawks to try to "Roy Hibbert" the Cleveland bigs (read: drag 'em out of the paint so Teague and Carroll can get slashing buckets).
(BR) Cavs in 6. This has a lot to do with my guard being up as an Atlanta sports fan, and I'll freely admit that. However, picking against LeBron should always be done at one's own peril, and I'm not going to do it here. The Hawks absolutely have a chance to win this series, and homecourt advantage is huge, so picking Atlanta wouldn't be insane or anything approaching it. I'm using my analyst hat to take Cleveland, and if you don't think there is a bit of reverse jinx involved, you're out of your mind.
(KW) This Hawks team found a way during the regular season and have continued that trend in the playoffs. The Cavaliers are the biggest challenge they have faced yet, but I think we are in store for another great series full of intriguing matchups and adjustments. I think Kyle Korver will bounce back in a big way and that will be the difference in a series win for Atlanta in seven games.