A year after LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers steamrolled past the Atlanta Hawks on their way to the NBA Finals, the defending Eastern Conference champs are looking to do so for a second season in a row. Meeting Atlanta in the second round of the 2016 NBA playoffs, the Cavs could have another easy series with the Hawks.
For many, the notion of Cleveland reaching the NBA Finals is a foregone conclusion. James has led his team to the finals in each of the last five years, including last season, in which the No.2 seeded Cavs swept the top seeded Hawks in the conference finals. Finishing the regular season atop the East standings with nine more wins than Atlanta this season, Cleveland is a heavy favorite to cruise to the next round.
Cleveland has -470 odds to win the second-round series, via BetOnline, while Atlanta is a +395 underdog. Before sweeping the Detroit Pistons in the first round, the Cavs won 57 regular-season games, including a 3-0 record against the Hawks. Atlanta needed six games to get past the Boston Celtics.
When the Hawks won 60 games a season ago and faced a Cleveland team that was without injured Kevin Love, they had no answer for the greatest player of his generation. James nearly put up a triple-double for the entire series, averaging 30.3 points, 11.0 rebounds and 9.3 assists per game. He was just as dominant in two wins against the Hawks last month, averaging 31.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 7.5 assists.
“He just found every shooter and they 3-pointed us to death,” Kyle Korver said of Atlanta’s attempts to stop James last year. "... You can’t give [James] angles. You can’t give him easy baskets, momentum plays.
"He’s too big, strong and too good. You can’t shade him one way. You can’t force him one way. You just got to square your shoulders at his shoulders and try to make it tough on him, and even if you do that he probably is still going to get 30 points.”
Kent Bazemore will be the one getting the assignment on James for much of the series. Last season, it was DeMarre Carroll who spent a lot of the time guarding the four-time MVP. But the small forward signed with the Toronto Raptors as a free agent in the offseason.
“It is LeBron James,” Bazemore said. “And I’m Kent Bazemore. It is a huge opportunity [for me] obviously, but I can’t really focus on a mano-a-mano matchup.”
Atlanta’s double-team defense from frontcourt players like Paul Millsap and Al Horford will be key, and the Hawks are better equipped than most teams to slow down James. Only the San Antonio Spurs finished the regular season with a better defensive efficiency than Atlanta, who allowed just 98.8 points per 100 possessions.
The Hawks tied for fourth in blocks per game (5.9) and ranked third in steals per game (9.1) in the regular season. In the first round, Atlanta limited Boston to 38.7 percent shooting from the field, forcing the Celtics to make just 27.5 percent of their three-point attempts.
Limiting Cleveland’s effectiveness from behind the arc will be essential in Atlanta’s attempt to pull off the upset. Only the Golden State Warriors made more threes than the Cavs in the regular season, and Cleveland shot 41.3 percent from three-point range in the first round, making 14.3 three-pointers per contest. J.R. Smith went 12-of-27 from three against the Hawks in last year’s postseason, and Kyrie Irving converted four of his six three-point attempts.
Irving missed half of last year’s series against the Hawks, and Love didn’t play at all. Both players are healthy this year, and while James might no longer be the top star in the NBA, he’ll still be the best player in the second-round series by a wide margin.
James ended the regular season shooting 65.6 percent from the floor in April, playing his best basketball of the season. He’s had some of his best games in recent seasons against the Hawks, and the two-time champ should have a few memorable performances this series.
Atlanta has a chance to steal a game if James and the Cavs have a poor shooting night, but Cleveland won’t have much trouble making it to the conference finals for a second straight season.
Series Prediction: Cleveland in five
Game 1: at Cleveland, Monday, May 2, 7 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 2: at Cleveland, Wednesday, May 4, 8 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 3: at Atlanta, Friday, May 6, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 4: at Atlanta, Sunday, May 8, 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
Game 5: at Cleveland, Tuesday, May 10, TBA (TNT)*
Game 6: at Atlanta, Thursday, May 12, TBA (ESPN)
Game 7: at Cleveland, Sunday, May 15, TBA (TBA)*