The Eastern Conference Finals will feature a matchup between the conference’s best player and the conference’s top team, as LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers take on the Atlanta Hawks. With a trip to the 2015 NBA Finals on the line, the team with the four-time MVP has the edge over the No.1 seed that won 60 regular-season games.
Despite not having home-court advantage and finishing seven games back in the standings as the No.2 seed, Cleveland is the decided favorite to win the series. The Cavs have looked like the better team in the playoffs, and Atlanta’s road to the conference finals hasn’t been an easy one.
Cleveland made quick work of the Boston Celtics in the first round, sweeping them in four games. After losing Kevin Love for the rest of the postseason, the Cavs needed six games to eliminate the Chicago Bulls. The two teams played a few games that came down to the wire, but two of Cleveland’s four victories were blowouts.
Atlanta needed six games in the first round against the Brooklyn Nets, having trouble with the No.8 seed that had a sub-.500 record. Their second-round series with the Washington Wizards went six games, as well, and their last two wins came down to the final seconds. A Paul Pierce buzzer-beater was waived off in Game 6, helping the Hawks avoid overtime and possibly a Game 7.
Neither team is currently as good as they were at their peaks. The Cavaliers went 34-9 to close out the 2014-2015 season, but injuries have hurt their chances to win the title. The Hawks went undefeated in January and won 40 of their first 48 games, but they were just one game over .500 in their final 21 regular-season games.
The absence of Love noticeably affected Cleveland against Chicago. The Cavaliers took another hit when it was revealed that Kyrie Irving has been battling multiple injuries. He sat out most of Cleveland’s last game, and didn't practice on Saturday. The point guard said he’ll be ready for the series opener on Wednesday, but head coach David Blatt wouldn’t guarantee that Irving will be in the lineup.
With the Cavs banged up, James has been forced to carry the team even more than usual. While he hasn’t been as efficient as he’s been in recent seasons, the third-place finisher in this year’s MVP race continues to fill up the stat sheet. It’s hard to imagine that James will allow the Cavs’ season to end at the hands of the Hawks.
During the postseason, James leads Cleveland in points, assists, rebounds and steals. He’s only shooting 42.4 percent from the field, but James is averaging 7.9 assists and 10.2 rebounds per game, which is a career-high. Even as he went 7-for-23 from the field in the clincher against Chicago, James added nine rebounds and 11 assists, helping the Cavaliers win by 21 points.
Cleveland has withstood James’ shooting struggles, in part, because the supporting cast has done their job from three-point range. Irving’s injuries have slowed him down, but he’s still shooting 45.7 percent from behind the arc. J.R. Smith has made some clutch shots and hit 35.1 percent of his threes. Matthew Dellavedova is at 39.3 percent from three-point range, and James Jones and Iman Shumpert are both at 34 percent.
Atlanta certainly has the ability to force Cleveland into taking tough shots. The Hawks ranked seventh in the regular season in defensive efficiency, as well as opponents’ three-point percentage. But the team’s defense hasn’t been what it was in the first half of the year, and Atlanta allowed Washington to shoot 37.5 percent from three-point range.
It certainly won’t be easy for the Cavs to beat the Hawks. Atlanta has proven that they can beat Cleveland, doing so in three of their four regular-season meetings, though James didn’t play in one of those games. The two teams last met on March 6 when the Cavs were at full strength. James was held to 18 points, and the Hawks won, 106-97.
If Love and Irving were healthy, Cleveland would have the three best players in the series. Atlanta has six players averaging 10 points or more this postseason, but none of those players score more than 17.1 points per contest. Four Hawks are averaging at least 5.2 rebounds per contest.
Atlanta did have four players named to the All-Star team, but none of them are leading the team in postseason scoring. DeMarre Carroll has taken on a bigger role in the playoffs, raising his scoring average from 12.6 points to 17.1 points per game. He’s shooting 52.4 percent from the field, including 43.9 percent from three-point range.
Even when the Hawks were playing their best, their lack of star power never allowed them to overtake James and the Cavs as betting favorites in the East. Atlanta should be able to make it a competitive series, but they just aren’t good enough to stop the best player in the world from reaching his fifth consecutive NBA Finals.
Cleveland-220, Atlanta+190 [Bet Online]
Cleveland in six