ATLANTA – With the (41-9) Atlanta Hawks about to host the NBA’s best team in the visiting (39-8) Golden State Warriors in a possible NBA Finals preview, there is one team in the East that is climbing up the conference standings fast, the (31-20) Cleveland Cavaliers.
One year after taking the Indiana Pacers to seven games in the East quarterfinals last spring, the Hawks have been the NBA’s surprise team in racing out to a .820 winning percentage in winning 41 of their first 50 games. While Atlanta has no true superstar, they have a solid team composed of Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll and Kyle Korver.
Led by the unanimous choice for NBA Coach of the Year in Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks have feasted on inferior Eastern teams and Western teams alike. While the Hawks have dominated at home in going 24-3 and 17-6 on the road, NBA champions aren’t crowned in February.
Which leads to the proverbial favorite in Cleveland.
In the case of the Cavaliers—who dispatched of the (33-17) Los Angeles Clippers, 105-94 on Thursday, many experts picked them to not only win the East, but their first-ever NBA title thanks to the return of LeBron James and the acquisition of Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Thanks to a less than stellar 19-20 start that saw them lose starting center Anderson Varejao to a torn ACL, James miss two weeks due to various injuries, and rumors of internal discord amongst players, there were calls for first time NBA coach David Blatt to be fired.
During their first 39 games, the Cavaliers scored 99.8 points per game, shot 41.2 percent from the field and allowed teams to score 100.1 points a game. In two bold moves by general manager David Griffin, Cleveland traded high-volume shooter Dion Waiters to Oklahoma City for picks—one of which would be used to land Timofey Mozgov—for shooting guard J.R. Smith and swingman Iman Shumpert.
In landing these three players, the Cavaliers improved on defense in getting a much-needed rim protector in Mozgov, a complimentary shoot-first guard across from Kyrie Irving in Smith and a lockdown wing defender in Shumpert. Thanks to these pickups, the Cavaliers have going from a middling contender to the hottest—most dangerous team—in the entire league.
In addition to the return of James, the Cavaliers have won 12 straight in averaging 106.7 points, shooting 45.1 percent and allowing 94.7 points per game. One noticeable area in which the Cavaliers have improved on is their defensive tenacity—which thanks again to Mozgov—Cleveland can be more aggressive on defense.
With the current level of play, as opposed to their first 39 games, this is a completely different Cavs team that lost two out of three to Atlanta. Come playoff time, regular-season series mean nothing and the game slows down to more of a old-school half-court game, which favors the Cavaliers due to their bigger and more physical front line than Atlanta’s more finesse, jump-shooting tendencies.
While Atlanta is a very good team, I feel that they do not have the go-to typ of player that the likes of Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto or Washington have.
In addition to this, the Hawks have a more challenging schedule after the All-Star break, as 18 of their final 31 games will be on the road against contenders such as Chicago, Washington, Oklahoma City, Golden State, Phoenix and defending conference champion Miami.
While the Hawks have soared for much of the season, the Cavaliers have finally gelled into the team that many picked to win it all, and thanks to their current 12-game win streak have risen from fifth to third in the East.
The Hawks are a very good and talented team, but despite their record, are another year away from being considered legitimate title contenders, as the Cavaliers are not only clicking on all cylinders, but now the real beasts of the East.