As you get deeper into the NBA Playoffs, the games break down into a series of chess matches between coaches and the Eastern Conference Finals will feature a matchup of two of the league's best. Mike Budenholzer was the NBA's Coach of the Year after leading the Atlanta Hawks to 60 wins and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. David Blatt has garnered some criticism along the way but has the Cavaliers on the verge of the Finals in his first season on an NBA bench.
The most difficult decision facing Budenholzer in this series might be how to best utilize a bench that has been up and down throughout the postseason. Atlanta's starting unit has been great posting a 16.3 net rating in 213 minutes on the floor during the playoffs. That number falls off considerably whenever even one starter goes to the bench.
As a whole, minutes are up for the starters across the board but there is room for Budenholzer to lean more heavily on them if the situation presents itself. Too often during the playoffs Atlanta has seen the starters race out to a big lead only to watch it evaporate as Budenholzer goes to his bench. Managing the situation will be paramount to the Hawks' fate in the series. Atlanta is a deeper team given the injuries that Cleveland has endured, but Budenholzer must find the right combinations on the court to use it as an advantage.
Blatt will also face some matchup decisions and will be pressed to make the right calls at the right times. Atlanta's spread the floor attack rendered Washington's big frontcourt duo of Marcin Gortat and Nene ineffective and forced the Wizards to go small. Blatt went big in Cleveland's second-round win over Chicago placing both Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson in the starting lineup. He may be forced to go small with LeBron James at the power forward slot, but he has fewer options on his bench. The Hawks will try to put Mozgov and Thompson in space and make them defend all over the floor while chasing Paul Millsap and Al Horford out to the perimeter. It will be up to Blatt to devise a strategy that combats this with rotations or by changing his lineup.
Still Blatt's biggest weapon may actually be his biggest curse. Coaching the best player in the world can often put a coach in a tough situation and subject him to some unfair criticisms. The Cavaliers are the favorite in the series despite not having homecourt advantage. If the Hawks are successful, then the spotlight will shine the brightest on Blatt for Cleveland's struggles. Managing James can be a difficult task. It is not the fact that he calls an audible in the huddle before hitting a game winner against the Bulls that is the problem. Many great players have interjected themselves in similar situations at crunch time. It is the fact that he chose to undermine his head coach by telling the media about the audible afterwards.
Given the challenges in front of them, this should be an outstanding series to watch from a coaching perspective. You have a rising star in Budenholzer going against Blatt who has enjoyed plenty of success overseas but must prove he can carry that success onto basketball's biggest stage.