The Eastern Conference Finals matchup between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers will feature some intriguing matchups along the frontline. It will be another challenge for the Hawks as they try to contain LeBron James while taking Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov out of their comfort zones.
Of course, any discussion of the Cavaliers' frontcourt starts with James who has been ridiculous so far this postseason averaging 26.5 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.9 assists. James' responsibilities as a facilitator may outweigh him as a scorer in this series due the lingering injury issues of Kyrie Irving. He carried Cleveland over Chicago and is capable of carrying them all the way to the Finals.
The job of chasing LeBron will fall squarely on the shoulders of DeMarre Carroll who has done a bit of everything for the Atlanta during the playoffs. Carroll is a versatile defender and has the size and the speed to guard multiple positions. He has matched up against big wings like Joe Johnson and has also seen time guarding quick point guards like John Wall this postseason.
Defending James will be the biggest challenge yet for Carroll and this will be a series where the loss of Thabo Sefolosha will be felt the most. While Carroll will be charged with the initial matchup, Atlanta takes a team approach in defending the opposition. Priority one will be keeping James out of the paint and out of transition where he has no equal. They will try to make him a jump shooter which is an area that he has struggled in during the playoffs.
James shot 49 percent from the field during the regular season and 35 percent from three-point range. He is down to 42 percent from the field in the playoffs which is the result of his increased workload as the Cavaliers deal with the loss of Kevin Love and the injuries to Irving. James' three-point shot has vanished in the playoffs with him connecting on just 15 percent of his attempts. His shot chart clearly illustrates the need to limit his in the paint opportunities.
If only it was that easy. James is a superior athlete and anytime he builds up a head of steam or gets his shoulders square going to the basket, it is going to be an iffy proposition for the defense. Expect Atlanta to throw a number of different looks at him including double teams if he catches the ball with his back to the basket, but his passing skills require that the rest of Atlanta's rotations be on point or else risk giving up wide open looks as a result.
Another key will be making James work on the defensive end of the floor. Carroll leads the Hawks in scoring during the playoffs and is shooting a high percentage. If Cleveland elects to go small then James may find himself matched against Paul Millsap. Whatever the situation, keeping LeBron in motion on the defensive end of the floor will be paramount to Atlanta as they look for any crack in James' armor.
The Hawks will also face another formidable power forward and center combination in Cleveland's Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov. However, Atlanta's duo of Paul Millsap and Al Horford will present the Cavaliers with some difficult matchups. Atlanta's space the floor mentality wreaked havoc on Washington's combination of Marcin Gortat and Nene in the second round. That forced the Wizards into a lot of smaller lineups with Paul Pierce playing power forward which worked a lot better for them.
Cleveland may be forced to follow suit and play James at power forward a lot more than he would like. Neither Mozgov nor Thompson are mobile defenders and the Hawks will attempt to pull them out of the paint and guard the pick in roll in space. If they sag away to prevent drives from Atlanta's point guards, both Millsap and Horford have the ability to knock down shots from the perimeter. Millsap and Horford will also have the advantage in transition and Atlanta should be looking to push the basketball at every available opportunity.
Where Mozgov and Thompson have the advantage, however, is in the paint and on the backboard. The acquisition of Mozgov solidified Cleveland's defense from one of the worst in the league to one in the upper half. They have performed at an increasingly high level defensively so far in the playoffs. Mozgov isn't the most mobile defender nor is he the most athletic, but he understands angles and puts his body in good defensive position. He will be hard pressed to chase Horford to the perimeter, but he is going to be a load to try and move off the block.
Thompson may be the most difficult matchup for Atlanta. He is a big and physical player with long arms with a knack for grabbing offensive rebounds. Atlanta's rebounding issues have been well chronicled this season and were in the spotlight during their first round matchup against Brooklyn. The Hawks were able to make adjustments and their team approach to rebounding served them well against Washington but keeping the likes of Thompson off the boards will be a challenge in this series.
To summarize, the Washington series showed the difficulty that big lineups have in defending the Atlanta. It is likely that we will see a lot of James at the power forward position. It is not necessarily an ideal situation, but Atlanta may be better equipped to handle James at the four than other teams. Most series are won in the trenches and this one won't be any different. LeBron is going to be LeBron, but how Atlanta handles his supporting cast might just be the difference.