- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
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Cleveland crushed Detroit (again), and the Cavs looked as locked in on defense as they were in the regular season. Atlanta beat Miami in seven games, no small feat when Dwyane Wade is on the other side. But while the Hawks suffered through a few poor outings, Cleveland was able to depend on its terrific defense to keep it in games long enough for its offense to get in gear.
It's a lesson Atlanta must heed, as well, because there is no question that its own offense will struggle mightily throughout much of this second-round series. If the Hawks can slow Cleveland down, they'll give themselves a chance to find a rhythm late and perhaps steal a game in Cleveland. And in Atlanta, where the Hawks beat the Cavs once and lost the other game by four points, Cleveland will have to perform well to earn a victory -- it's a much bigger challenge than Cleveland faced in Round 1.
Atlanta's offense versus Cleveland's defense
• Atlanta scored 101 points per 100 possessions in Round 1, after averaging 106.6 per 100 during the season. Cleveland held Detroit to 89.5 points per 100, and gave up 99.4 in the regular season.
• Atlanta had some strong offensive outbursts against Miami and looked overpowering on occasion. But those days are mostly gone against this Cleveland defense. The Hawks must focus each time up the floor if they ever want to string together consecutive successful possessions. Otherwise, Cleveland's defense will act like a boa constrictor, using every movement on offense to further strangle the life out of the Hawks.
• When Atlanta is playing its best, Josh Smith is attacking off post-ups or back-downs. Joe Johnson is engaged as both a scorer and a shot creator for others. Mike Bibby is using ball screens to get shots for himself, or creating enough help to initiate ball movement that will end up with an easy shot. And Al Horford is racing to the rim and getting involved in the center of the floor, inside 17 feet.
• Josh Smith is a big key for this series. If he can score on Anderson Varejao by getting into the lane (he especially likes his lefty hook from 8 feet in front of the rim), or countering him back to the baseline for the dunk, it forces Cleveland to send help, and that gets everybody open. But only for a moment, as Cleveland has the best help and recovery defense in the East. But Smith tends to float outside, settling for jumpers he rarely hits. If he does this, it allows Cleveland's base defense to stay solid and makes block-out responsibilities easy. It also lets Varejao roam when the ball is opposite Smith, and Varejao can be very effective helping to the ball side.
• Johnson will get the bulk of the touches for Atlanta, and he has the ability to create the help that can open up driving seams for Smith. Johnson will get shots off pin-downs and post-ups, and will attract help on both. His big key is to read and react quickly, moving the ball sooner as opposed to holding onto it too long. It may take 20 seconds to create the best shot against Cleveland, but it will come if the Hawks can get quick swing passes to counter the Cavs' help. Delonte West, a very underrated defender, will get the call on Johnson much of the time. If West can keep him quiet, without needing much help, Atlanta is going to have serious difficulty scoring.
•Cleveland's defense relies on its excellent execution. The Cavs seem to always know who's doubling, where it's coming from and when it should start. This will be very valuable if they decide to double Johnson, which they did in the regular season. They won't do it until he is in a threatening position, via the drive or catch, but when they do it will probably be with a big man. This forces the other four defenders to rotate toward the ball, making it all the more important for Atlanta to move the ball to the weak side immediately.
Cleveland's offense versus Atlanta's defense
• Cleveland scored 110.5 points per 100 possessions in their sweep of Detroit, better than their 109.7 points per 100 in the regular season. Atlanta allowed 104.8 points per 100 in Round 1, and 104.6 during the season.
• Cleveland features LeBron James as much as possible on offense, mixing in various actions to give him quality touches. When the Cavs get stagnant and just throw it to him and space out underneath him, he (and they) are not as difficult to defend. But they often start games featuring everyone else, getting them into a scoring flow and relying on James when things break down. The Cavs will initiate their sets often with drag screens for Williams, James or West, creating immediate pick-and-pop opportunities for Ilgauskas and even some post-ups for Varejao. Atlanta has to sprint back on defense, after makes too, to defend this action effectively. Forcing Cleveland, one of the four best offenses during the regular season, to get into its secondary sets is the first step toward slowing the Cavs down altogether.
• The Cavs like to run LeBron into combo sets, like a pin-down ball screen with Ilgauskas. If James curls on the pin-down, he can force the Hawks to switch, which they are comfortable doing when Smith and Horford are in the game. When LeBron fades to the corner, he earns Ilgauskas a post opportunity. And when he uses the ball screen, he'll force the switch again. On those big-little switches with James, LeBron has to make Horford or Smith defend an attack dribble, because settling for jumpers is what they want from him. Or they can clear the strong side and dive Ilgauskas down to the blocks with a wing guarding him. The switch is risky, of course, but the Hawks feel they are better off doing that then possibly missing a help rotation and giving up an easy basket. They'll take their chances with the mismatches.
• Atlanta must be prepared for the flash cut when LeBron has the ball, especially from Varejao, who will come from the weak side when he sees that Atlanta's defenders are too focused on LeBron. Atlanta's defenders have to see both the ball and their man at all times. LeBron is gifted as a passer, so all he needs is a sliver of an opening to make that pass into the heart of the defense.
• Mo Williams likes to penetrate in the early offense, with his shooters spaced out to spread the floor. When the Hawks get back quickly, they can make it tough on Williams because of their length, athleticism and shot-blocking skills. Again, forcing Cleveland into secondary sets is a must.
• With Maurice Evans on LeBron, Atlanta is always at risk for a post-up. The Cavs will do this from Ilgauskas at the pinch post, or from a guard on the wing. Atlanta will immediately double, typically with a big man, and when LeBron throws it back outside to get a quick ball reversal, it forces Atlanta to react intelligently. The Hawks have to contest the shot, but with the proper matchup. Big men contesting guard shooters leaves the Hawks very vulnerable inside for offensive rebounds, a Cavs specialty. If Cleveland's shooters are on, doubling James becomes even more risky. Of course, not doubling him is also a risk. If Cleveland's shooters are off, this series could get tight.
• Williams and West, when using ball screens, won't typically draw a switch, as Atlanta's big men will show and recover. They are very good at this, especially Horford, so attacking those bigs and trying to get into the lane is the best plan. Not doing so only shrinks the clock without gaining any advantage. Williams is the guy Cleveland needs to take scoring pressure off LeBron. Clearly, he'll be a huge factor in this series, as he's still the best option after LeBron on offense.
Bibby: Playoff veteran who not only provides a steady hand running the team, but is capable of hurting Cleveland with his 3-point shooting. He was solid against Miami overall and made 16 of 30 3-pointers. Cleveland will try to shut him down with as little help as possible, a strategy that worked during the season, as no team in the East held him below 3 assists per game other than the Cavs.
Williams: It's a sign of Cleveland's overall strength that it swept Detroit without four strong games from Williams. He struggled in two of the games, including a 1-for-11 performance that resulted in two points and four turnovers. But he came through in a big way to finish the sweep, pouring in 24 and making 9-of-14 shots. No team had more troubling slowing Williams than Atlanta, as he averaged over 23 points per game on over 53 percent shooting.
Johnson: Struggled through the first four games against Miami, but then broke out in Atlanta's two wins. He had 27 (including 6-of-8 shooting from 3) in Game 7. He'll be the main target of Cleveland's defense, drawing help on back-downs and attracting defenders in transition when he spots up. He needs to be a ball-mover when he gets too much attention. He's better equipped to guard Williams than Bibby is, and that will take a toll on his overall energy.
West: West played well in three of the four games and was a key cog in Cleveland's overall defensive mastery over Detroit. As the Hawks throw everything possible at LeBron, West's feel for the game will be crucial, helping to ensure that Cleveland finds an offensive rhythm. On defense, he'll spend lots of time trying to defend Atlanta's best player, Joe Johnson, who has size and strength advantages against any of Cleveland's guards.
Evans: Replacing Marvin Williams (possibly still out); did not offer much against Miami. His challenge goes way up in this series. Defending LeBron is impossible for any player by himself, so Evans knows he'll get lots of help. Bumping LeBron out of important spots in the paint will help him. So will being an offensive threat. Evans likes to go hard to the glass on offense, which will force James to match his effort level.
James: James could have earned a new nickname in Round 1 ("The Destroyer") because that's exactly what he did to Detroit. He played over 40 minutes a game and averaged 32 points, 11.3 boards and 7.5 assists (and just 1.5 turnovers). He has welcomed the challenges and responsibilities that are thrust upon him, and seems able to add even more to his plate. The bigger the challenge, the better he'll play. The Hawks' length and athleticism are a challenge to him, especially on the perimeter when contesting shots. No team in the East, other than Detroit, defended him better from behind the line (1.5-for-5.5 from 3-point range in their four games). And LeBron may have to defend Joe Johnson if he gets rolling, which could hurt King James' offense.
The second-best athlete on the court, Smith can overwhelm some of Cleveland's rotations with his quickness and jumping ability. He did not shoot well against Miami, and Cleveland certainly will hope he continues to take 3-point shots; he made just 2-of-14 in Round 1, and hit 29.9 percent during the year. Atlanta's offense will be better off if he passes or drives instead of launching those shots. His ability to block shots from the weak side could make things tougher on Cleveland's inside finishers, if they are always on the lookout for him.
Varejao struggled for the most part against Detroit as a rebounder and scorer, but still impacted the games in a positive way thanks to his defense and energy. If defenses get "freaky" in trying to slow or confuse James, Varejao's offensive rebounding talents can really make them pay. He goes to the glass hard at all times. He's always quick to help on defense, which could be a problem because Josh Smith, who he'll be guarding much of the time, is inclined to hang around the hoop.
Horford started solidly in Round 1, but an ankle injury limited him in the last few games, and he ended up sitting out Game 6 entirely. He is seriously outsized by Ilgauskas, so not only will he have trouble contesting Z's shots, but he'll have those long arms in his face when he shoots. Still, Horford can win this matchup by using his speed in the full court to get easy buckets or pick up fouls. He might look for his shot more when Varejao is on him.
The Big Z was not pressed too hard in Round 1, as LeBron was able to carve up the defense by himself for the most part. But Ilgauskas' ability to make outside shots (and occasionally inside) will be needed in this matchup. As will his size and positioning on defense, helping to bottle up the paint. The Hawks are small on the front line, and this helped Ilgauskas torch them this season (16.7 ppg on 62.5 percent shooting). But he's going to have to be a runner, chasing Al Horford up and down the floor.
Flip did not put up consistent numbers against Miami, but he was a valuable weapon when he was on. He'll get chances in every game to help Atlanta as a scorer.
Had a monster game of 12 and 18 in Atlanta's pivotal Game 4 win in Miami. His size and strength are needed against Cleveland's front line, and not just to be another big body. He'll need to be productive.
Smith showed that he can add some offensive punch when the Cavs need it, scoring 13 and 19 in two of their wins. He has the savvy to counter Atlanta's athleticism.
Wallace returned in Round 1 from an injury; he gives the Cavs an extra big body with tons of playoff experience.
Did not play much in Round 1, but remains a 3-point threat and an overall energizer. Really struggled, though, against Atlanta this year, averaging fewer than four points per game.
Played fewer than 10 minutes a game against Detroit. Cleveland will go to him for offensive help when necessary.
Atlanta has the athletes and the shot-makers to make up for any deficiencies in execution. The Hawks can beat Cleveland with speed, 3s and offensive rebounds. But the Cavs are built for the playoffs now, deep inside and out and full of confidence. A loss will not shake their confidence enough to make them panic. And Atlanta still has some more growing up to do before reaching another level.
Prediction: Cleveland wins 4-2
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for more than 40 NBA, European and D-League players. Those players include Kevin Martin, Rob Kurz, Luol Deng, Courtney Lee and Tyrus Thomas. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.
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