This is what we wanted, right? As a collective National Basketball Association fanbase, we wanted to see the best team in the Eastern Conference take on the most prolific player of the past 15 years. Amidst a 19 game when streak for the Atlanta Hawks and LeBron James’ best statistical month of 2015,1 January had us all salivating at the thought of the age-old talent vs. teamwork match up.
So why does this feel so different? The Hawks are averaging just as many assists per game in the post season as they did in the regular season (25) yet the ball seems to stick too often and the offense goes stale. While the Hawks did indeed make it to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, it seemed the last win to get them there wasn’t much of a win for them as much as a loss for the Washington Wizards. A double digit lead turned into a deficit and a review was needed to ensure they had actually won the game. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Cavaliers are without Kevin Love and a full strength Kyrie Irving. The two main reasons LeBron returned home barely make up half of a reason now.
Before you get depressed and decide to binge watch the rest of Friends on Netflix rather than witness the letdown of a series outlined above, let me tell you why it’s going to be even better than we expected.
Key to the Series
- The Bigs. If I told you at the beginning of the season that Kevin Love would go down before the ECF, but LeBron would still be playing with the toughest front court he has ever had, you would have thought I was crazy. But here were are and that is what we have. While it is hard to argue that Chris Bosh wasn’t far more talented than Timofey Mozgov or Tristan Thompson, it is equally as hard to argue that any frontcourt player to play along side James has been as gritty as either Mozgov or Thompson. Mozgov’s play is equivalent to Ivan Drago’s workout routine: Calculated, strong, and efficient. (Someone look up Vegas’ odds that Mozgov greets Horford with an “I must break you” just as the ball is about to be thrown in the air. I have a bet to make.) Meanwhile, Tristan Thompson is proving he is the hardest worker Bron Bron has played with. The kid has no stop and every offensive rebound he gets is a huge blow to a team who thinks they just stopped LeBron from scoring.
- The Big 3 is no more. The business model that many have adopted through the history of the NBA has become somewhat infamous thanks to LeBron utilizing it as an exit strategy a few seasons ago. It worked for him so he decided to stick with the strategy, just with another team. The King still led his team to four straight NBA Finals during his stint with the Miami Heat, but it was different. The pressure was still on, but he removed himself from having to score 29 of his team’s last 30 points. He could now be comfortable driving and dishing most the time and score his 25 a game to take a series. Until now. Vintage LeBron is needed for the Cavs if they are going to win this series. Fingers crossed over here because we could all be in for a show.
- Kyle Korver. It doesn’t take an expert to realize if Kyle Korver continues shooting 35% from beyond the 3-point arc and 39% overall, the Hawks will lose and it won’t be pretty. However, ask a player on any team who played the Hawks this regular season just how deflating it is to witness a barrage of Korver triples when his team is so close to regaining the leads. Odds are words such as “depressing”, “debilitating”, “demoralizing” and many other words that start with “de-“ will come to his mind. When Korver is rolling, the Hawks are rolling. The Wizards defended Kyle like he was in mid-season form, sacrificing Bradley Beal to the defensive assignment for most the game. The Hawks were able to get by without Korver’s 4-5 3-pointers a game in that series, but that won’t happen against the Cavs. Outside of Beal, there aren’t any elite defenders on the Wizards. The Cavaliers definitely have more to go around and therefore, the Hawks can’t afford to completely lose one of their All-Stars on the offensive end.
- Mike Budenholzer. Atlanta’s biggest advantage has to be at the Head Coaching position. The NBA Coach of the Year has a proven track record as an assistant and led a team that many thought during the preseason might not make the playoffs to the Eastern Conference’s best record. I am not going to sit here and rag on David Blatt for LeBron’s comment’s about changing that play or his near Chris Weber catastrophe at the end of game 4. But I will say that Budenholzer was masterful during the regular season with getting his team to play as a single unit, truly exemplifying that the whole was better than the sum of its parts. The ball movement was second to none and he took virtually the same team from 15th in scoring defense last year to 5th in the league this year. The playoffs have been a slightly different story as the Hawks are scoring less on offense while giving up more points than the Cavs are. The Hawks have improved in that category, too, but it still raises makes you think whether the Hawks peaked too early while Cleveland left some room in the tank for a deep playoff/finals run. Only Budenholzer can reverse that type of thinking.
The notion I mentioned above, “whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts” is all find and dandy, but at some point, the Hawks are going to have to win some individual match ups. I think their best change to do this is at the PG position with Mr. Ice-Teague himself, Jeff Teague. As Irving continues to nurse his head, shoulders, knees, and toes, will Teague be able to take advantage of his skill set and dominate his match up with Matthew Dellavedova? Dellavedova gave Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls fits and ultimately proved to be a huge factor in the series. That can’t be the case in this series if the Hawks want to advance to the Finals…or even win one game. Look for the PG matchup to contribute heavily to the final outcome of this series.
It didn’t take me long to see right through the misty veil, but I figured it out.
Two demobilizing injuries to two star players who have already been linked together in a more commercialized setting coupled with the media attention generated by LeBron’s return to home, all culminating in one game in Atlanta, Georgia… the home of corporate headquarters of The Coca-Cola Company.
Game 7: 4 minutes into the game, say, 7:54 seconds left in the 1st quarter, LeBron goes down with a sprained left ankle. It has been a hard fought series, but with Kyrie hobbling around and Kevin Love seated firmly on the bench for the past 10+ games, a LeBron injury seems fatal to the Cavs hopes of returning to the NBA finals. LeBron gets up, weakly, and tries to shake off the pain. David Blatt calls timeout.
The Cavaliers continue to play without the three superstars who were supposed to guide the team to its first ever championship. Until… wait, who are those guys? Three men enter the game for the Cavs, all rather elderly, or appearing that way at least. The whistle sounds and they move sluggishly to keep up on defense. After a few possessions of pathetic turnovers and blocked shots, the shorter of the three gives a wink to the larger two. The trio of men begin to move around the floor with the such grace and power. All of the sudden alley oops are falling from he sky and and fans who showed up to watch a season defining game 7 can make out the “Uncle Drew” on the back of the smaller player.
The Hawks can barely keep up and the game soon spirals out of control.
Uncle Drew, Wes, and Grandpa Vern help Pepsi, Co. pull off the most elaborate commercial of all time in route to winning the ECF in dramatic fashion.
Completely fabricated and overly dramatic? Sure.
Cavs in 7
nearly 30 ppg, 6 ast, 6 rebs, while shooting 51% from the field ↩