There were no upsets in the East, with the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers both making it to the conference finals. Despite not looking dominant in the process, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds will face off with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line. It took each only six games to get past their second-round foes, but the Wizards and the Bulls managed to put up a good fight and exposed several weaknesses in their opponents. The challenge for the Hawks and Cavaliers now will be to figure out how to hide theirs while exposing each other's.
Atlanta continues to struggle in the playoffs with three-point shooting, a problem that didn't plague them earlier in the year. After averaging 38 percent from outside during the regular season -- second-best in the NBA behind the Warriors -- the Hawks are hitting just 34 percent in the postseason. That inconsistency in their perimeter attack is a huge problem. Atlanta, which lacks a true offensive star, needs to spread out defenses and score by committee.
Against the Wizards, those three-point woes, combined with a season-long weakness on the defensive glass, made for razor-thin games. That's an area in which the Hawks will have to improve against the Cavaliers, a team that employs two great offensive rebounders -- Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson -- who could wreak havoc on the boards.
Despite a mostly inefficient LeBron James, Cleveland figured out how to score on the Bulls' defense and the team fired on all cylinders for stretches. Yet offense has never been a problem for the Cavaliers, even with Kevin Love out for the season.
Defensively, they did well against an unimaginative Chicago offense, but the Cavs will face different challenges against the Hawks. Atlanta has been pushing the pace this postseason and Cleveland is coming off a series that was played largely in the half court. The Cavaliers' isolation-heavy style protects them against turnovers, but the Hawks are experts in forcing mistakes and capitalizing on them. If they dictate the speed at which the game is played, Cleveland's defense could revert back to regular season form.
It will be a true clash of styles, so whichever squad imposes its will is going to emerge victorious. If the individual greatness of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving shines through, the Cavaliers will make the Finals. If the ball movement and balanced scoring of the Hawks stand out instead, Atlanta will make it out of the East. This will be the toughest challenge either team has faced and it will be fascinating to see who prevails.
- Hawks (60-22, expected: 56-26) vs. Cavaliers (53-29, expected: 53-29)
- Offensive efficiency: Hawks: 106.2 (6th) | Cavaliers: 107.7 (4th)
- Defensive efficiency: Hawks: 100.7 (7th) | Cavaliers: 104.1 (20th)
- Season series: Hawks 3-1. The Cavaliers destroyed the Hawks in their first matchup, winning by 33 points. But they lost the last three games of the season series.
4 questions that will decide the series
1. What do you think is your team's biggest advantage in this series?
Peachtree Hoops: Atlanta's frontcourt tandem of Al Horford and Paul Millsap will present some difficult challenges for Cleveland. Both Horford and Millsap have the ability to step out onto the perimeter and knock down shots, which will put a lot of pressure on the likes of Timofey Mozgov or Tristan Thompson.
Fear the Sword: I'm a broken record at this point, but it's LeBron James. DeMarre Carroll will probably give him some trouble in this series, but with Kevin Love out and Kyrie Irving hobbled, the Cavaliers are suddenly short on offensive options. James will spend a lot of time with non-shooters like Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson and a slightly below-average one in Iman Shumpert. The Hawks will likely load up on him. How effective he is will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the series. James is looking at reaching his fifth straight NBA Finals, so it's hard to bet against him.
2. What do you think is your team's biggest disadvantage in this series?
PH: The Cavaliers have LeBron James, which is a matchup problem for any team. DeMarre Carroll will face a big challenge in trying to slow down James while also being an important piece of Atlanta's offense.
FtS: The Hawks, in theory, should be a better three-point shooting team. J.R. Smith has been coming off the bench, Love is gone and Irving has been inconsistent due to his various injuries. That's a lot of shooting that the Cavaliers relied on when they were really clicking that has come and gone in the postseason. James Jones had some big games against the Bulls, but you can't expect too much from him at this point. LeBron's jump shot has largely failed him in this postseason. The Hawks are dealing with their own questions when it comes to shooting from distance, but they seem a bit more random than the Cavaliers' issues.
3. Which player needs to step his game up most for your team to win?
PH: Jeff Teague is an easy answer here, but I am going to go with Kyle Korver, who struggled against Washington. Korver shot just 31 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from three-point range against the Wizards. His presence opens up space for the rest of Atlanta's offense, but the Hawks need him to knock down some shots if they want to beat the Cavaliers.
FtS: J.R. Smith. At this point, we can say with some confidence that the Cavaliers are going to play hard and grind defensively. They still aren't a great defensive team, but with Mozgov, Thompson and Shumpert getting large minutes and James dialed in, it's gotten a lot better. James needs some help on offense. If Smith can do it, the Cavs look a lot better.
4. What is your series prediction and why?
PH: The Hawks seem to be an afterthought to many in regard to this series, but I think they will be competitive and will have a chance to steal it away in the end. Atlanta in seven.
FtS: This really feels like a coin flip to me, but I'll say Cavaliers in seven. I know they'd have to go on the road to do it, but that's my call anyway. LeBron James is the best player in the series and the Cavaliers lack depth, but have a lot of versatility all the same. If they can score enough, they can win.
Fear the Sword
Game 1: Wednesday, May 20. Philips Arena, Atlanta, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 2: Friday, May 22. Philips Arena, Atlanta, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 3: Sunday, May 24. Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 4: Tuesday, May 26. Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 5 (if necessary): Thursday, May 28. Philips Arena, Atlanta, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 6 (if necessary): Saturday, May 30. Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 7 (if necessary): Monday, June 1. Philips Arena, Atlanta, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT)