CLEVELAND – After two convincing road wins in the Eastern Conference finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers have all but exposed the overrated top-seeded Atlanta Hawks.
Before you continue reading my blog, I am sure how you are wondering why this writer is calling a team that won 60 regular-season games, sent four players to the All-Star Game and had it’s coach named NBA Coach of the Year? Simple, because regular-season achievements mean nothing when you are a glorified jump-shooting team.
Throughout the regular season, much praise and accolades were heaped upon the over-achieving Hawks such as “Spurs East” due to head coach Mike Budenholzer being a former assistant to San Antonio Spurs boss Greg Popovich, and rightfully so.
While the Hawks didn’t have a marque big-name such as LeBron James, Derrick Rose or Carmelo Anthony on their team, their “team-first” concept and unselfish play led by the likes of Kyle Korver, Al Horford, Jeff Teague, DeMarre Carroll and Paul Millsap helped Atlanta achieve a historic 19-game win streak, highlighted by a perfect 17-0 record for the month of January.
Critics and the so-called experts were mesmerized and seduced by the Hawks and their selfless brand of basketball, and rightfully so.
Couple this with Eastern conference favorites such as Chicago and Cleveland dealing with early-season injuries to Rose, Anderson Varejao and LeBron James, young teams in Washington and Toronto and a weakened Miami Heat sans Chris Bosh and Josh McRoberts, and the Hawks were able to take advantage of a perfect storm of injuries and opportunity to proverbially run away with the East.
In being able to run riot over the weakened East, much of their weaknesses such as lack of a go-to player, rebounded and size were masked thanks to a regular season schedule of back-to-backs for visiting teams, allowed the well-rested hawks to pick off opponents with ease thanks to their ability to penetrate and spread the floor.
Throughout the season, the Hawks averaged 102.5 points, made 38.1 percent of their shots from the field, made ten three-pointers a game, grabbed 40.6 rebounds and dished out 25.7 assists.
Again, with other teams injured or not at full strength and Atlanta being fortunate to not have any major injuries, the Hawks rightfully ascended to the top of the East. Before the end of the regular-season, the Hawks rested some of their starters, thus throwing off their system offense going into the playoffs and it showed.
In their first-round matchup against the eighth-seeded Brooklyn Nets, their lack of size and the lack of a true point guard were exposed for the first time against the bigger Brooks Lopez, while the Hawks would prevailed in six games, Lopez averaged 19.8 points against the smaller Hawks front line.
In their conference semi-finals against the fifth-seeded Washington Wizards, their issues in perimeter defense and lack of size on the wing were once again exposed as John Wall averaged 17.6 points in three games before missing three games—which Atlanta would win two out of three—with a left hand injury. Bradley Beal averaged 25.2 points, Marcin Gortat averaged close to a double-double with 9.2 points and 8.0 rebounds while 37-year-old Paul Pierce averaged 14.0 points a game—including a potential game-tying buzzer-beater that was waived off, that enabled the Hawks to escape with a 4-2 series win.
While it is good to be lucky, having a fortuitous string of good fortune in Wall’s hand injury, a last-second, backdoor layup by Horford and a Pierce buzzer-beater reversed vis instant replay convinced this writer that the Hawks could be had by LeBron and the Cavaliers.
So far, so good.
Going into the conference finals, many “experts” pegged the Hawks as the team to beat Cleveland, due to Kelly Olynyk treating Kevin Love like Johnny Socket Boy and the frailness of Kyrie Irving that the Cavaliers championship hopes would come to a crashing halt deep in the heart of Georgia, right?
Well, Cleveland had other plans.
Thanks to J.R. Smith going video game on the hapless Hawks defense in scoring 28 points—and setting a franchise record for made threes in a post-season game—and LeBron being LeBron in Game 2, Cleveland—not Atlanta is the dejected and demoralized team that is two wins from the NBA Finals.
The Hawks would lose their best “LeBron stopper” in DeMarre Carroll to a hyperextended knee injury in Game 1, and their best outside shooter in Korver in Game 2, now find themselves in the same proverbially short-handed position that Cavs are in with Love and Irving. In the post-season, injuries mount and each game is a war of attrition. All of the passing and scoring finesse that once defined the Hawks is now gone, as they are basically trying to play Cleveland’s style of ball and losing.
In two games so far, Atlanta’s points per game is 85.5, field-goal shooting is down to 33.5, three pointers made is a mere five per game, rebounding is down to 38.0 and their calling card in assists is down by eight from the fore mentioned 25.7 to 17.0
One thing that many “experts” and fans failed to take account in a seven-game series is that teams have a chance to scout you and game-plan to adjust to your strengths, weaknesses and tendencies, and clearly Cavs head coach David Blatt has done a masterful job in taking away the Hawks’ outside shooting and using their size to smother the smaller Hawks.
It also helps to have some dude named LBJ on your side too.
With Korver done for the rest of the post-season due to a high ankle sprain and Carroll less than full-strength, Cleveland smells blood in the water in the wounded Hawks and are just lining up the fatal kill shot at home in a inevitable sweep.
While it is commendable of what the Hawks achieved during the regular season in running away with the East, Atlanta is learning the painful lesson at the hands of the Kingsmen that wining three out of four games means nothing, and that you will not be able to sneak up on teams in the playoffs.
I will not go as far to say that they are a disgrace, but a 60-win team such as the Hawks were expected to at least offer some resistance. Clearly, the Hawks are not on Cleveland’s level of mental toughness, and are simply getting bully balled to death by LeBron and torched by his cadre of outside shooters in Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, James Jones and Iman Shumpert.
I think the correct word to describe Atlanta is an overrated, over-achieving wanna-be San Antonio Spurs clone, that coasted thru the year with zero injuries.
Thank to Cleveland’s masterful dominance down in the ATL, the East finals are about as anti-climatic as watching wet paint dry.
With the Hawks down 0-2 against a player who is 14-0 when two games to none, undefeated against the Hawks in six games and your own franchise being 0-14 all-time when down 0-2, is not a good position to be in against a team, that is the best in the post-season defensively, and has the chance to close you out on their home floor.
Right now, the only thing Atlanta stands for is walking chicken-and-waffle loving paperweight of an obstacle for the Cavaliers en route to their inevitable clash with league MVP and the Golden State Warriors.
Hopefully, the Hawks will take this as a teaching moment, as the King and the bigger, more athletic and better Cleveland are ready to put Atlanta in their post-season grave soon.
Just don’t tell Kent Bazemore that.