The Atlanta Hawks will face the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Monday. It will be a rematch of last season's Eastern Conference Finals but will be a matchup of two very different looking teams.
Injuries played a huge part in last season's series for both teams. Cleveland was without Kevin Love for the entire series and Kyrie Irving limped around for several games and was never 100 percent. Paul Millsap came into the series with a shoulder injury for Atlanta but things just got worse from there. DeMarre Carroll suffered a knee injury in Game 1 that would hamper him for the remainder of the series. Kyle Korver was lost at the end of the Game 2 due to a broken ankle. Atlanta entered the playoffs without its top defender Thabo Sefolosha who was lost for the season after an incident at a New York nightclub involving the NYPD.
Both teams enter this series relatively healthy. Hawks point guard Jeff Teague tweaked his ankle in the Game 6 clincher against Boston but the time off between series gives hope that he will be close to 100 percent. Atlanta lost Tiago Splitter just after the All-Star break to season ending hip surgery but the core group will begin the series intact.
The Hawks enter the series as underdogs and rightfully so. Cleveland was the top team in the East and Atlanta has dropped seven straight games to them including the sweep in the Conference Finals.
Atlanta saw its win total drop 12 games this season to 48 and finished with the No. 4 seed. However, there are some that think that this version of the Hawks might be better equipped to handle the rigors of the playoffs.
Atlanta finished the season as the second best defensive team in the league in terms of defensive efficiency. They smothered the Celtics in the first round holding them to 38 percent shooting overall and 32 percent from beyond-the-arc. However, they limited success defensively against Cleveland during the regular season who scored at least 109 points in all three games while shooting 45 percent from the field.
If the Hawks have anything going for them in this series it is that all of the pressure and expectations rest squarely on the shoulders of LeBron James and the Cavaliers. A healthy Love and Irving give Cleveland quite a dynamic look offensively but neither are defensive stalwarts. The combination of Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson smothered Atlanta on the perimeter and in the paint. Both are still available and will play huge roles in this series but it is still a different combination.
If the Hawks ultimately lose this series, then it can be traced back to their up and down regular season. Atlanta had a chance on the final day of the regular season to avoid seeing the Cavaliers until the Eastern Conference Finals but a loss to an undermanned Wizards team gave them the fourth seed and set up the potential second round matchup.
Still the Hawks enter this series with a bit of a chip on their shoulders. They know that while last season's series ended in a sweep, Game 1 was within their grasp before an offensive explosion by J.R. Smith pushed Cleveland over the top. They were in Game 3 to the end despite Al Horford being ejected in the first half after a dust up with Dellavedova.
Nothing about this series will be easy. The Hawks need to steal a game early for their own confidence and to put the pressure on a Cavaliers team that hasn't been quite as close knit throughout the season. Still it is going to be a tall order but Atlanta is looking to make it much more competitive this time around.