Cavaliers-Hawks series breakdown
The Cavs could be rusty to start the series after a long layoff following Round 1
LeBron James has become an even better rebounder in the postseason
Josh Smith needs to limit three-point attempts to maximize effectiveness
No. 1 Cavaliers (66-16) vs. No. 4 Hawks (47-35)
Not merely heavy favorites to win the series, Cleveland should advance with such ease that losing two games would rate as a shock. It begins as the most lopsided of the four conference semifinals. It may end as nothing more than a good workout for the Cavaliers, the chance to break a sweat after a long layoff and before the East final that should be the closest thing to a challenge they see before the championship series.
Everything is breaking right for the Cavs. They earned No. 1 in the East, home-court advantage and the chance to stay away from the Magic and Celtics until the third round, then stepped over the Pistons in an easy opener. They made all of that happen. Meanwhile, Atlanta-Miami went seven games, Boston-Chicago went seven games and Orlando had a lot of weak moments over the last month. Kevin Garnett is apparently done for the playoffs, though that doesn't stop the questions about KG going Willis Reed, and Orlando's Courtney Lee could be out an extended period.
Now, the best defensive team in the league gets an opponent in the second round that didn't even finish in the top half in scoring. The James-Johnson angle had better be good, because there isn't much beyond that.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. The Cavaliers' rust issues. Cleveland has not played since dispatching the Pistons on April 26, and that was as the final installment of seven games in 15 days. R&R is a very good thing, especially when the pace could quickly accelerate and the travel becomes more of an issue than the quick hop to Detroit. But there's also a lot to be said about keeping a rhythm in the playoffs, and the Cavaliers haven't faced real competition in a long time.
2. LeBron James: Rebounding Machine. James went from 7.6 boards a game in the regular season to 11.3 per in a few hours of work against the Pistons. That's where his performances turn crushing. If James continues to rebound anywhere near double figures, opponents will come out for the opening tip with their arms raised. The Cavaliers, already good on the boards, just found a way to get better.
3. Al Horford's health. The Hawks' starting center returned from a sprained ankle to post a quiet seven points and three rebounds in Atlanta's Game 7 rout of Miami. He won't have the luxury of easing his way back to health against Cleveland's deep front line. The Hawks are the worst rebounding team left in the playoffs, and if Horford isn't close to 100 percent, it could be a frustrating few weeks for Atlanta in the paint.
The Cavaliers may seem young because James is 24 and every other starter other than Zydrunas Ilgauskas is 26 or younger, but the roster is very playoff-tested, a big advantage as Cleveland moves forward. Delonte West (30 career postseason games), James (50), Ben Wallace (120), Anderson Varejao (50), Daniel Gibson (35) and Joe Smith (43) have all reached at least the second round before this. Mo Williams (nine) is the only one who hasn't, and he hardly looked inexperienced against the Pistons.
Atlanta's Josh Smith is one of the few players who has the athleticism to make James work on defense, and when he drives to the basket there aren't many opponents who can stop him. After five years in the league, you'd think Smith would have figured that out. But he still can't resist the lure of the three-point line, despite shooting only 14.3 percent from long range in the first round. The more Smith persists in trying to stretch his offensive game, the less James and his teammates will have to work, which isn't a recipe for beating the Cavs.
UNDER THE RADAR: Daniel Gibson, who proved to be a vital release valve for James in Cleveland's run to the Finals two years ago, has been struggling lately to provide scoring off the bench. After seeing his production drop in the second half of the regular season, Gibson averaged only 4.3 points on 31.3 percent shooting in the first round. If Gibson doesn't start knocking down some shots, Cleveland's starters may be looking at more court time than they logged against Detroit.
PREDICTION: Cavaliers in 5. The Hawks have no chance to impose their will on the Cleveland defense and dictate the pace. Atlanta needs a wide-open tempo. Atlanta needs to get into another series, in other words.
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