The Pro’s Playoff Preview: Eastern Conference Finals

May 21 2015
C.J. McCollum
Portland Trail Blazers
May 21 2015

If you missed my Western Conference Preview yesterday, click here to read it. I don’t have as much first-hand experience playing against the Eastern Conference teams, but I definitely watch more Synergy clips than your average beat writer, so give me a chance here.

Gut reaction:
The best player in the world vs. one of the best starting fives in the NBA, so you never know what can happen. The problem with predicting this series is the injuries to both teams. Depending on how healthy certain guys are, it could go either way. I was reading Mike Rupp’s NHL Playoff Preview and he pointed out how nobody in hockey is 100-percent healthy at this point. A lot of people don’t realize that the same could be said for the NBA playoffs. Kyrie Irving says he’s going to tough it out and give it a go in Game 1, but how will that affect his quickness?

Player to watch:
Fans of point guard play should keep an eye on Atlanta’s Jeff Teague. He doesn’t have the flash of some of the bigger name guys, but he does a great job of distributing the ball and playing with good pace. He’s a classic PG. His speed allows him to get into the lane, especially on pick-and-rolls, but he’s also mentally quick. He’s very good at processing the defense and making decisions. I think his speed is going to cause some problems for Kyrie Irving, especially if Kyrie is only like 75%. When he’s playing fast and unselfishly, Teague makes Atlanta go. He has a reliable jump shot, a good floater and some quick layups in his arsenal. It will be interesting to see what the Cavs do to disrupt him. Will they put Iman Shumpert on him and put Kyrie on DeMarre Carroll or Kyle Korver?

What I’ve learned from playing these guys:
Atlanta’s coach Mike Budenholzer came from the San Antonio system, and the Hawks have quickly adopted the same philosophy of passing, cutting, making quick decisions and playing unselfishly. They don’t necessarily have a go-to guy in crunch time, but that can actually present a challenge for you as a defender because you have to guard all five guys on the floor. You can’t cheat or take a step toward the superstar, because you don’t know what play is coming. Against Washington, they even had Teague on the bench during the final minute. He was unselfish enough to tell their coach to leave Dennis Schroder in the game. At times, they’re going to play Teague and Schroder together, which is a lot of quickness and tempo for Cleveland to deal with.

The Hawks are unique in the different types of scoring options they have in their arsenal. Carroll is going to get his corner 3s and back-door cuts. Kyle Korver has the ability to shoot 49% from 3. And maybe most importantly of all, the skill set of their two bigs will cause Cleveland some problems. Paul Millsap is versatile enough to score from anywhere and Al Horford is a center that can shoot from mid-range and beat defenders off the dribble. Timofey Mozgov is a great rim protector, but the Hawks bigs are going to try to pull him outside the paint while using their quickness as an advantage. If you see Mozgov at the top of the key, that’s a problem.

One of the plays I expect to see Atlanta run a lot is similar to the “Weak Action” that has been perfected by the San Antonio Spurs. This play is one of their many secondary break options. Everyone in the league knows how effective San Antonio’s “weak” and “strong” plays are due to the player and ball movement mixed with their veteran continuity. Budenholzer has brought over some of those same continuity sets. In their “thru” set, the guard initiates the offense by passing to the wing and cutting to the opposite corner, followed by a ball reversal through the trailing big to the other side. The wrinkle in this play is a quick pindown to get Korver open for a three and/or a curl jump shot. This play creates a bit of misdirection while allowing Korver to potentially get an open look or find the roll man. Let’s go to the tape …

So I love what Atlanta does to move the ball, but there’s just one little problem …

Obviously there is always a ton of attention on Bron, but as I watched film of Cleveland I noticed they’ve had success with Lebron in pick-and-rolls (go figure). Look for some little-on-big ball screens with LeBron as the primary ball handler and the PG (Dellavedova or Kyrie) setting the screen in hopes of a switch or defensive lapse. In the series against Chicago, Delly slipped the screen and popped for three. If he makes contact, that could potentially create a switch. The Cavs gave this wrinkle a look down the stretch of the Bulls elimination game and Delly got some great open looks from three. Expect the same tonight and imagine the type of damage that could take place with Kyrie setting the screen.

Here’s how it looks…

The most interesting subplot of the series will be how Carroll handles LeBron. You have to have a non-stop motor to guard LeBron, and Carroll has a Ferrari motor. In the half-court, I want to see how Atlanta handles Cleveland’s pick-and-roll. The last time these two teams played, Atlanta dogged a lot of ball screens involving LeBron and Kyrie. That means the two defenders abandoned the picker and trapped the ball handler. This created some havoc and led to turnovers in that game, but it’s a tough way to play for four quarters, let alone seven games.

I anticipate LeBron eating at the rim. He hasn’t been getting a lot of catch-and-shoot 3s in the playoffs, and Atlanta’s perimeter-oriented wings certainly won’t let it happen. But the weakness for Atlanta is that they don’t really have a shot blocker in the paint. If LeBron has the will to play bully-ball and back down defenders, I think he’s going to feast at the rim and get to the line a lot. The question is whether or not the Hawks can load up on him enough to keep him out of the lane. If he’s a jump shooter in this series, Atlanta has a chance. If he’s around the basket, the Cavs will run away with it.

What swings the series?:
The X-factor in the series is J.R. Smith. He’s got no chill. J.R. has unlimited range and there isn’t a shot he doesn’t like. He’s hit some timely 3s for them because he has no conscience. J.R. makes shots that break the other team’s will. If he gets hot, it might be tough for the Hawks to keep up with his scoring for stretches. Speaking of scoring, I think that’s what swings the series. Like I mentioned in my Western Conference preview, effort on one end of the floor depletes your turbo bar on the other end. I think Carroll has to score close to 20 a night in order for the Hawks to win the series. But if he’s trying to keep LeBron out of the paint on defense and blitzing Kyrie on ball screens, it’s tough to go down the other end and make your cuts as crisply as you would normally. Your turbo bar is already in the yellow.

McCollium JR Smith Pull

It’s unfortunate for Atlanta, because if Thabo Sefolosha was healthy, the tandem of him and Carroll guarding LeBron would make for a much tougher matchup. Now you have Kent Bazemore coming off the bench to guard him, and that’s a pretty tough task if LeBron is committed to going to the basket, because LeBron has three inches on him. You’re going to see a lot of help defense when LeBron gets to the paint, which is going to leave open shots for Dellavedova, Shumpert and J.R. Smith. It’s interesting because all the talk this year was about the so-called Big 3 in Cleveland, but with Kevin Love out and Kyrie Irving hobbled, it’s LeBron’s time to remind everyone what he can do not just as an elite scorer, but as an elite distributor. If he’s getting close to 10 assists per game, this series will be over very quickly.

Who wins:
Cavs in 5. Korver’s shooting and their superb starting five will steal a game or two, and I’m a big Dennis (the Menace) Schroder fan. However, I’m not sure the Hawks’ bench will have enough to hurt Cleveland when LeBron needs a rest. With Thabo healthy, this is a different series.

C.J. McCollum
Portland Trail Blazers