Sweeping the Detroit Pistons earned the Cleveland Cavaliers more than a week to rest their bodies and prepare their minds for the second round. The Atlanta Hawks beat the visiting Miami Heat 91-78 in game seven on Sunday and will face the Cavs in the Eastern Conference semifinals, which will start Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena. The Hawks have steadily improved from 13 wins in Coach Mike Woodson’s first season (2004-05) to 26, 30, 37 and 47 wins in the past four years. Uninformed fans (and media members) often urged the Hawks to fire Woodson early during his tenure in Atlanta but the Hawks stayed the course and Woodson has done an excellent job of developing his young roster. Last year, they pushed the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics to seven games in the first round and this year they made it out of the first round for the first time since 1999, when former Cavs Coach Lenny Wilkens guided Steve Smith, Mookie Blaylock, Dikembe Mutombo and company to the Eastern Conference semifinals in the lockout shortened season.
The Hawks’ success in the past two seasons has surely made them a more confident team and it is also evident that they have increased their poise and defensive intensity, though they still are prone to having lapses in both of those areas from time to time, especially on the road. Atlanta’s best player is three-time All-Star Joe Johnson, a versatile shooting guard who led the Hawks with 21.4 ppg and 5.8 apg this season. Johnson is very durable, playing in all 82 games in five of his eight seasons and leading the NBA in total minutes played in 2003-04; he has logged more than 3000 minutes in five seasons, including 2008-09. However, contrary to what you may have read in the Plain Dealer, Johnson neither played for Team USA last summer nor did he lead the NBA in minutes played this season (he ranked second in total minutes with 3124 and third in minutes played per game with 39.5). The Heat focused a lot of their defensive effort on slowing Johnson down and he only averaged 17.1 ppg and 3.1 apg in the first round, though he outplayed 2009 NBA scoring champion Dwyane Wade in game seven, producing 27 points on 10-19 shooting and contributing five rebounds, four assists and five steals while committing just one turnover (Wade scored 31 points but shot just 10-25 and only had three rebounds, four assists and one steal while committing four turnovers).
Clearly, containing Johnson will be a focal point for the Cavs but the Cavs are very well equipped to do so: Delonte West is an underrated defender who will draw the primary assignment versus Johnson, while LeBron James will likely be called upon to match up with Johnson in certain situations. Johnson averaged just 16.5 ppg versus Cleveland as the Cavs won three of four regular season games versus Atlanta.
Veteran point guard Mike Bibby and athletic forward Josh Smith are the Hawks’ next two most valuable players. Bibby is very similar to Mo Williams, though Williams is younger and quicker; both players nominally play the point guard position and are capable of creating plays for others but primarily serve as shooters/scorers. Bibby was Atlanta’s most consistent performer in the first round, averaging 14.9 ppg while shooting .473 from the field, .533 from three point range and .947 from the free throw line, much better than Johnson performed in all three categories (.415, .435 and .629 respectively). Smith is a 6-9 pogo stick who blocked at least 200 shots for three straight seasons, though he only had 111 rejections in 2008-09; he can score, rebound, defend and even pass a little but he has no outside shot and is prone to bouts of immaturity, both in terms of his shot selection and his overall game to game focus. Some people use the excuse that Smith is young but Smith is only one year younger and one year less experienced than LeBron James. As Cavs fans well know, James has improved his defense, free throw shooting, three point shooting and overall game—but Smith’s game has changed very little since he entered the league and in some ways he actually has regressed in the past couple years. Smith will have a few fast break dunks and weakside blocked shots in this series but overall he will be very frustrated playing against a tough, defensive-minded Cavs team that held him to 9.7 ppg in three games this season, his second lowest scoring average against any NBA team in 2009.
The Hawks thrive in the open court but despite the skills of Johnson and Bibby their half court offense is erratic and rightly received heavy condemnation during the first round from TNT analysts Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith. The Hawks’ athleticism gave the Celtics problems in the first round in 2008—at least in Atlanta—but with LeBron James, Delonte West, Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao the Cavs not only have no reason to fear playing in the open court but they also have the ability to execute very effectively in the half court, thus limiting Atlanta’s opportunities to get out and run. The Hawks have a solid eight man playoff rotation when they are healthy but Al Horford is banged up and Marvin Williams missed four games in the first round and his status is uncertain.
LeBron James’ greatness is so obvious at this point that even the most casual observer—other than maybe Skip Bayless—recognizes how special he is, even if it takes an educated eye to fully appreciate some of the subtle ways in which he has improved, particularly in the past year. The Cavs are finally getting some recognition for their great defense, although most commentators are about two years behind in figuring out just how good of a job Coach Mike Brown has done in transforming the Cavs into a defensive-minded team; I had to laugh when I heard Mike Wilbon say to James during ESPN’s Sunday Conversation that no one thought that the Cavs were going to make it to the 2007 Finals: at least one writer understood the value of defense and predicted before the 2007 playoffs that the Spurs would beat the Cavs in the Finals. The aspect of this year’s Cleveland team that has yet to be fully appreciated in many quarters is just how balanced and deep the Cavs’ roster is. The Cavs legitimately have at least 10 players who could competently play 15 minutes in a game if necessary and, just as importantly, that depth is well distributed at most positions: the frontcourt rotation of bigs includes Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, Ben Wallace, Joe Smith and Darnell Jackson, while the backcourt rotation has Mo Williams, Delonte West, Daniel Gibson and Sasha Pavlovic. Wally Szczerbiak can play shooting guard or small forward depending on matchups. With the obvious exception of James, the Cavs can withstand an injury to virtually any other player; Williams’ shooting/speed and Varejao’s mobility/toughness/screen setting would probably be the toughest commodities to replace but the Cavs could plug in other players, adjust the game plan to fit their skill sets and still be very, very tough. I have mentioned this in a few recent articles but it bears repeating here: the Lakers are the number one seeded team in the West and many people (erroneously) call them the deepest team in the NBA but their sixth man—based on minutes played in the first round—is Shannon Brown, who was 13th in playoff minutes played on the Cavs team that made it to the Finals in 2007. If Brown were currently a Cav he likely would not be getting any playing time at all, which is after all why the Cavs were willing to part ways with him in the first place.
James’ brilliance plus Cleveland’s defense, rebounding and depth will be far too much for the Hawks to handle in this series.