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The Great Challenge for LeBron James: Against the Hawks

Photo Source: Joshua Gunter/The Plain Dealer

Photo Source: Joshua Gunter/The Plain Dealer

Atlanta Hawks (60-22) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29)

(Atlanta 3-1 season series)

Logo-Eastern-Conference-Finals

F or the first time since the NBA realigned into conferences in 1970/71 season, the Hawks reached conference finals. That is also the first time they won 2 playoff series in a single postseason since moving to Atlanta in 1968 from St. Louis. But they actually have a championship, won in 1958 when star forward Bob Pettit was their leader.

The Cavaliers don’t have championship titles, despite having some good teams like that one with Daugherty, Nance, Ehlo and Price in the late 80s and early 90s, and Lebron James centered squads in the late 2000s. Lebron led them all the way to the Finals in 2007, but the Cavs were quickly swept by the Spurs.

There are problems for both teams heading to this series. Cleveland can not count on Kevin Love’s services while Kyrie Irving is moderately injured and had grueling issues against the Bulls (he averaged 17.5 points and just 2.7 assists per game). The Hawks are without Sefolosha while Horford and Millsap have some minor but annoying injuries since the beginning of the postseason. Nevermind, this is the last obstacle before the Finals, and no excuses are allowed.

Now let’s break down the key matchups, advantages and weaknesses of both teams.

Jeff Teague vs. Kyrie Irving

Photo Source: youtube.com

Photo Source: youtube.com

Of course, Kyrie is the better overall player than Jeff, but with his injury and his well-known issues on defense, this is really a close call right now. Even if Kyrie was 100%, Teague would cause him real troubles with his exceptional speed and slashing abilities. Remember that Atlanta relies on strong team defense rather than 1 on 1 plays. Kyrie is more important for the Cavs than Jeff for the Hawks, and that might be a problem for David Blatt.

Without Love, Irving must give his best against the best team in the Eastern Conference. Kyrie is capable of scoring 30-35 points, but his bigger challenge is to be consistent because his team must win four times. Teague is a sure-shot for his 15 points and 6-7 assists, and during the regular season he shot 47,2% from the field against Cleveland. This is a tie at the moment (if Cleveland’s medical staff don’t commit a miracle and heal Kyrie).

Kyrie Irving (knee) went through practice on Monday and vowed to play in Game 1. Coach David Blatt said he was "encouraged" by Kyrie's participation, and this is a much more optimistic take ahead of Wednesday's Game 1 than was being presented at any point over the weekend. We expect Irving to be in his usual place in the starting lineup, but he won't be 100 percent healthy.

Advantage: Cavs

Kyle Korver vs. JR Smith

Photo Source: Joshua Gunter, The Plain Dealer

Photo Source: Joshua Gunter, The Plain Dealer

The automatic shooter against the high-volume shooter. The reliability against the unpredictability. Team guy against the "sho0t first" player. The certainty against loose cannon. Smith can burn the opponent by dropping 30 points, but he can also shoot 3-for-23 from the field and bury his own team. 

Korver hit almost 50% of his 3-point attempts in the regular season, and he is an offense inside the offense. With a well-documented history of Smith’s breakdowns in the playoffs and the fact that Kyle is a better defender, the Hawks have the edge here.

Bonus: In the NBA Playoffs 2015, Josh Smith has better 3-point percent than Kyle Korver.

Josh Smith has 35.7 %, and he made 15/42 from downtown. Korver has 35.0 %, and he made 35/100.

Advantage: Josh Smith Kyle Korver, until JR Smith goes off against the Hawks

DeMarre Carroll vs. Lebron James

lebron-james-vs-atlanta-hawks

"They're a great team. They've been a great team all year," James said. "They've been the No. 1 seed in our conference all year for a reason and it's going to be highly competitive."

"They're balanced," James said. "You can't just key in on one guy. All five guys that's on the floor at that time, you have to have your antennas up. I think it starts with (point guard) Jeff Teague. He's an All-Star for a reason. His aggressiveness, the way he pushes the tempo and then it just falls into everyone else on that team. They do a great job of playing together."

Excluding Kevin Durant and Oklahoma, the Cavaliers have an advantage on the SF position against any opponent. James was good enough to keep Cleveland afloat, especially against Chicago and Jimmy Butler.

Carroll is enjoying terrific postseason, and he is very, very good defender who can slow down James, but not stop him completely. James must thoroughly outplay DeMarre in the series for Cleveland to advance further.

That is easier said than done. James will have statistically great series, no doubt, Love is done, and Kyrie is not entirely ready, but the question is if that is enough to eliminate Atlanta?

Advantage: Cavs

Paul Millsap vs. Tristan Thompson

Photo Source: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Source: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

"Give me four or five really good players compared to just one superstar," Paul Millsap said in late January, via Paul Newberry of the Associated Press. "I'll take that any day."

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Tristan was the X factor against the Bulls, but don’t expect another wonder. Millsap is, unlike Gasol, a great defender and, unlike Gibson, reliable two-way forward who can dominate down low in the paint, or outside because he is more than decent pick n pop option.

Millsap can also play a physical game and answer the call for some dirty job. Tristan will secure some boards and materialize second chance attacks, but the advantage is still on Atlanta’s side.

Advantage: Hawks

Al Horford vs. Timofey Mozgov

Photo Source Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo Source Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Atlanta’s center and nominally their first option has the lack of size for center position (listed 6 ft 10) and we’ve already seen him struggling against another higher center (Lopez), but unfortunately for Cleveland, Mozgov isn’t in the same tier with Lopez when it comes to scoring points or creating for teammates.

Mozgov is a good rim protector and remarkable presence inside with his giant frame, but Horford knows how to play under pressure. Horford is the anchor defensively and he is a proven scorer and Budenholzer will certainly use him as much as possible. 

Advantage: Hawks

Bench Factors

Atlanta got Dennis Schroder in the series against Washington and with Mike Scott, Pero Antić, Mike Muscala, Kent Bazemore and John Jenkins they have more options than Cleveland, whose only reliable guy beside starters is Iman Shumpert. Dellavedova and Jones can provide some help, but Marion, Perkins, Harris and Miller are practically useless in the playoffs.

Advantage: Hawks, but Cavs bench are on the highest level, after series against Chicago Bulls

Conclusion (Marlon and Steph)

Knowing that Irving will be limited and that Atlanta has Coach of the Year on their bench, plus the fact that the Hawks won season series 3 games to 1, showing how they can beat the Cavaliers using different strategies, I must give the advantage to them. Having the best player by your side won’t mean much to Cleveland this time.

Conclusion (Alonzo Warond)

Atlanta won the season series against Cleveland 3-1, but Blatt said that doesn't mean much when it comes to their upcoming series.

"Three out of four of those games we were not the same team we are right now," Blatt said. "We played obviously with different units the first two games, which were blowouts one way or the other, and one game Bron didn't play, and in the fourth game in Atlanta, we played with the full squad more or less at the end of a very tough stretch. But the Atlanta Hawks are in the Eastern Conference finals not by surprise."

LeBron James defeat Chicago Bulls, with passion and fire, and he sent the messages that he could beat everyone, even without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. He plays against Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah and he beat them 4-2. “I commend him for putting us on his back,” Irving said.

He can beat the Hawks because he develops a great chemistry with his teammates. Dellavedova is playing better then ever, and Shumpert & JR Smith are understating how real playoff team have to play if they want to advance to the NBA Finals.

Photo Source: sportsunbiased.com

Photo Source: sportsunbiased.com

Tristan Thompson, Timofey Mozgov and Kendrick Perkins (yes, Kendrick Perkins) have to play defense against the Hawks frontcourts and they must grab a lot of offensive rebounds in every game. That is the key, against the Hawks.

David Blatt is the NBA rookie coach, but he has a lot of experience. He already proved his charisma and quality in Europe, when he won European Championship with Russia, when they were an underdog against Spain with Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Rudy Fernandes and Ricky Rubio. And he beat them on their home court, in Madrid.

In the last season, he won Euroleague with Maccabi Tel-Aviv. He beat Real Madrid in the great final, after OT.

He is a coach under more pressure in the NBA, especially because he is in Cleveland and he is coaching LeBron James.

David Blatt is the most underrated coach in the NBA, right now. And he will coach his team against Mike Budenholzer, NBA Coach of the Year.

I know that he is playing without Kevin Love and with Uncle Drew who is not fully ready, but he knows how to unite a team and how to level up their chemistry.

Because of David Blatt, I think that Cleveland Cavaliers will beat Atlanta Hawks. LeBron James is the best player in the league right now (Steph Curry has yet to prove his superstar quality in the playoffs), and he can beat the Spurs of the Eastern Conference.

I know that is difficult because LeBron has aproblem with the Spurs' style of play and "share the ball" system, but now, he has the challenge. Can LeBron James beat the Hawks?

The Predictions

Fadeaway Prediction by Marlon: Hawks in 6

Fadeaway Predictions by Steph: Hawks in 7

Fadeaway Predictions by Alonzo Warond: Cavs in 6