- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
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Atlanta came into this series riding a roller-coaster, playing great in wins and poorly in losses. This is an especially tough formula for any sustained success against Cleveland because it's hard to play great against that defense. But offense is a luxury for Atlanta right now, thanks to Cleveland's ability to dictate at will against the Hawks' defense. Without some strategic adjustments and improved play on the defensive end, Atlanta is going to have difficulty winning a game in this series.
• In the first half, Cleveland's first play gave them a glimpse of what their second-half strategy would be. They ran LeBron James on a handoff from a guard in the pinch post, and the guard was being defended by Mike Bibby. James got an easy dunk as Bibby did not make much effort to slow him down.
After only occasionally attacking Bibby the rest of the half, the Cavs went almost exclusively after him in the third quarter. Cleveland started running guard-to-guard screens, forcing the switch to get Bibby on LeBron. It's almost the equivalent of switching Bibby onto Karl Malone, only LeBron is more explosive off the dribble. There's nothing Bibby can do on LeBron, so James can score or create for others with ease.
The Cavs attacked Bibby in the post, as well, isolating both Delonte West and Sasha Pavlovic on him. Bibby could not defend any of them. Hawks coach Mike Woodson tried playing zone instead of removing Bibby, but it didn't work.
So he finally put Marvin Williams in for Bibby with 4:22 left in the third quarter, as the Cavs swelled their lead from 3 to 12 in the quarter. By the time Bibby came back in the fourth, the Cavs were up 16. Game basically over. To protect Bibby, Atlanta may have to start doubling whomever catches the ball when they are defended by him. Helping Bibby is the single biggest adjustment Atlanta has to make.
• Al Horford and Josh Smith cannot run back on defense, satisfied that they are next to their own man, if James is ahead of them, because he will run right to the front of the rim and post. They must race and help protect the paint, regardless of how slowly their men are changing ends.
• Cleveland looked to put Zaza Pachulia into ball-screen actions in the first half, and Atlanta looked confused about what its strategy is for that. The Hawks were switching ball screens with Smith and Horford, but it didn't look like that's what they wanted to do with Zaza. So they didn't totally switch, and that left the ball handler or the screener open.
• Cleveland's bigs were very aggressive showing on all types of screens. They were determined to cover the recipient of those screens. The best way to counter this is quick ball movement, looking to attack 4-on-3. Atlanta's guys held the ball too long in reading this action.
Cleveland often sent Zydrunas Ilgauskas over to double Joe Johnson on wing catches (just as the Cavs did in the regular season). And the Cavs didn't look like they would double Horford on catches. In both instances, throwing to Horford in the pinch post could result in positive things. He can score on Ilgauskas or draw a foul when he has the ball with the floor spread. Or he can be a great pressure-release guy for Johnson, and can then turn to score or reverse the ball.
• The Hawks' closeout on Mo Williams was casual, at best. They have to run him off that line.
• Atlanta simply cannot allow James to drive down the middle for layups or dunks. He may be a great passer, but he cannot be played as a passer.
• Atlanta looked to push pace and had Smith setting early ball screens to free either Bibby or himself. The Cavs have to get their weakside defense established as soon as they get back, so they're able to defend the rim if the post guy marking Smith can show on Bibby and still have his backside protected.
• Cleveland's guards have to drop down and help when Smith is catching and attacking up the sidelines in transition. They wanted to stick to their own guy on the perimeter, to defend the 3-point threat, but slowing the ball has to be the first priority. Especially when the ball is in an explosive athlete's hands.
• Cleveland was determined to not get too caught up in finding the mismatches when Atlanta switched screens, but the Cavs too often did nothing to take advantage of the action, even when no switches took place. They saw that Atlanta was not switching screens that involved Bibby and Ilgauskas; the Hawks were hedging and recovering. So when Horford hedged on Williams and Ilgauskas popped middle, the nearest guard would shade heavily towards Big Z (because of his shooting threat) until Horford recovered. When the defense is defending the ball screen that way, the pass to make is to the top guard, whose man is shading Z. That will initiate the man advantage (remember, Bibby and Horford are on the perimeter). But there has to be ball penetration, via the pass, dribble or cut.
• Big Z rushed all night to double Johnson on the wing, but overcommitted to take the top away from Johnson on high ball screens, giving Johnson the easy dribble lane opposite Ilgauskas. He has to be sharper in his execution.
• With Ilgauskas doubling Johnson on wing drives, Cleveland has a strong plan to slow him down. But the plan starts with Johnson driving, which he'll do when West challenges him with ball pressure. When West stayed off him, Johnson had the easy 3-point shot. An easy motto for defending Johnson in Game 2 is "no easy looks."
• Cleveland so exploited Bibby on defense that any "freak" defense may be forthcoming. The Cavs must prepare for the unconventional.
• Last year against Boston, Bibby had success playing as a "rover" on defense, since Rajon Rondo was not a shooter and did not always look to score. The Hawks could try something similar in Game 2 and hope the Cavs' guards have poor games from the field, or break off from their game plan.
• Horford had a lot of room to operate, thanks to the strategy designed by Cleveland to use Ilgauskas as a double guy. But Horford took only four shots. He could have a big night if used a lot in the middle of the floor.
• Cleveland's third-quarter output matched Atlanta's entire second half, and this could lead to overconfidence. Unless Cleveland expects Atlanta's best effort in Game 2, the Cavs likely will not play their best, and that is a dangerous trend to start.
No matter what the Hawks do, they will struggle to score on Cleveland in half-court sets, so playing better defense can ramp up their transition game, and therefore their best chance at creating buckets and getting to the line. But they have too many adjustments to make in too little time, and the players will have difficulty executing the new strategies soundly and consistently.
Cleveland wins Game 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.