Michael Walton II writes about the Chicago Bulls and the NBA for We Are Regal Radio.
Michael is a student, freelance writer and high school basketball scout based in Chicago. He’s previously been published in TrueStar Magazine, the Redeye Chicago and thelyricallab.com.
An early sequence in the Eastern Conference Finals’ Game 1 — pitting the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Atlanta Hawks — was truly indicative of how this series should play out.
Kyrie Irving passed to a high-post bound LeBron James, coming off a down screen, and then received the ball back. Irving then started a 1-3 (point guard-small forward) pick-and-roll that saw Hawks guard Jeff Teague (a woefully-undersized 1 in this situation) switch onto James.
Cavs swingman Iman Shumpert took in the next pass from Irving and immediately whipped the ball into James in the post. The Hawks elected to send a quick double-team, and James found a cutting Timofey Mozgov in what seemed like a split-second for an open lay-up. As good as this play was executed, even if Mozgov would’ve missed, Tristan Thompson was right there for an easy put-back.
Both teams are dialed-in on defense, but as it is in the Western Finals that I broke down in my last post, this series is really about team-play versus “hero ball.”
The Cleveland Cavs have the most-talented basketball superstar in the world on their roster while the Atlanta Hawks have a deep team with five unheralded players whose sum is greater than the individual parts and Game 1 of the Eastern Finals showed some flaws that could prove fatal for both teams’ title chances.
“Trouble if You Double:” A Guide to Poorly Defending LeBron James
Reggie Miller and Chris Webber talked about it repeatedly through the ECF’s Game 1 broadcast on TNT — LeBron James is a basketball Swiss army knife, his versatility being his greatest skill, but his ability in the passing department is amongst the best of all time.
Therefore sending quick double-teams at him is a very poor strategy because as he proved many times on Wednesday night, he will find the open man. Coach of the Year winner Mike Budenholzer also had the Hawks try double teaming LeBron right as he made a move to score. This strategy failed because by the time the double team came James was already sinking another jump-hook or turnaround jumpshot.
I want to say that the best hope for the Hawks would be to let their best “LeBron-stopper” — DeMarre Carroll — exclusively guard James one-on-one.
But, of course, when Atlanta tried this it didn’t work either. Carroll is an excellent defender, but when you give up between 40 to 50 pounds in a match-up, there isn’t much you can do. And in addition to that, Carroll exited the last game with an injury that may force back-up Kent Bazemore to take on an almost impossible task.
James is entering the “cagey veteran” stage of his career and he now recognizes that there pretty much is no stopping him when he constantly posting up. The attention he commands allowed him to tally six assists, but James’ overall aggressiveness led to his game-high 31 points.
If I was the coach of the Atlanta Hawks, going forward in this series I would front LeBron hard in the post, and stop switching on 1-3 pick-and-rolls. The Hawks can’t allow James to always get the ball in a favorable position if they want to have a chance in this series.
But if James continues to give up on the three-point shot the way he has this postseason, I’m not sure there will be a “right way” to guard him.
Zenmaster Mike: A Prodigy? A Prophet? or Both?
Alright, maybe the above sub-title was a bit much. But if you would kindly click on this link and scroll down to #21, I’ll wait….
Exactly. I felt this way on February 22 and I still feel this way: “… they lack traditional rim-protectors. Millsap is allowing opponents to shoot 55.8% against him when near the rim. Horford is a tad bit better, allowing opponents to shoot 51.2% against him when near the rim.”
The Atlanta Hawks’ biggest roster flaw is their complete and utter lack of a rim-protector. Sure, Al Horford is a serviceable defender and a great shot blocker-which isn’t the same thing as being a great defender. But after Horford, no one else this current Hawks roster makes the Cavs scared of driving to the rim.
And if the absence of a shot blocker wasn’t bad enough, it has become apparent that Hawks front-court stars Paul Millsap and Horford are finesse players. Cleveland’s starting frontcourt of Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson are physical players who use strength and tenacity rather than skill and grace, and so far the Cavs duo is winning the battle down low.
Cleveland has a +5 advantage in offensive rebounding and when LeBron is in a groove, the Cavs are locked in on D and they are hitting the offensive boards, it is borderline impossible to beat them.
Live by the Three, Die by the Three
Coach Budenholzer accelerated the Atlanta Hawks rebuilding process by morphing them into the Eastern version of the San Antonio Spurs. Part of that transformation was unearthing dual obsessions with the 3-point shot and ball movement.
Budenholzer uses lightning-quick guards Dennis Schroder and Jeff Teague (who had a great Game 1 with 27 points and 4 assists) to open up the outside shot. And while Teague and Schroder initiated plenty of drive-and-kick action, the Hawks simply couldn’t make enough threes-open or otherwise.
ATL finished 4 of 23 from the three-point line for a measly 17% from downtown Wednesday night. During this postseason they have hit about 9.5 threes a game and have still struggled through two very close six-game series.
And how are the Cavs doing from the 3-point line in this series? I’ll let J.R. “Swish” Smiff answer that. From messin’ with dudes shoelaces to breaking Cavalier playoff records, here he is in all of his contradictory glory.
Ugh…my head hurts thinking about the possibility of J.R. Smith winning an NBA championship.
Prediction: Lebronaliers in six.
Post note: As a Chicago Bulls fan this post was hard for me to write, and I imagine reading about how the Cavs will be in the Finals will no doubt tug tightly on the heartstrings of all of my Bulls fans out there.
So to ease the pain of this tumultuous time in Bulls franchise history, I leave you here with this super-hot fire-flame-emoji mixtape of Fred “The Mayor” Hoidberg, straight outta Ames. Word is bond.
Follow Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under Regal Radio; follow Michael on Twitter @ZenMasterMike