1. How can the Cavs try to stop the Hawks’ excellent offensive ball movement?
Chris Manning, RDE co-editor: It’s going to be difficult, without question. Atlanta is the upper echelon in terms of assists numbers and essentially every lineup they run out will feature solid ball movement. Thus, Mike Brown is going to have to get creative and encourage players to take some risks in order to create turnovers. One thing I would try: When Alonzo Gee is in, they could run him on Jeff Teague (or whomever the Atlanta point guard is at the time) and let Irving defend Kyle Korver. Sure you risk Irving getting owned off the ball, but at least you can disrupt Atlanta’s offense from the start and get them out a rhythm. All in all, however, there isn’t a definite way to solve this issue.
Trevor Magnotti, Staff Writer: I think in order to do this the Cavs will need to change their defense a little bit. The Hawks have the fourth most assists in the NBA, and they get there because of their great passing bigs. In order to battle Millsap and Horford effectively, the Cavs will probably want to experiment with double-teams and overloading the strong side of the offense, just to cut down passing lanes. This is probably going to be most effective when Anderson Varejao is in, because Varejao can get blitz-happy all he wants when he is the double-teamer. I think applying more pressure to the guards is a good plan as well, although not Jeff Teague, because do that and we’re going to spend all game watching Jeff Teague roast Kyrie off the dribble. I’d expect the Cavs to try all of this against Atlanta.
Marlowe Alter, Staff Writer: Atlanta ranks third in the league with 24.1 assists per game. The Hawks have such great ball movement because they are unselfish; they know they lack a dominant offensive player and realize sharing the ball is the most efficient way to beat defenses. Atlanta has excellent interior passing with both power forward Paul Millsap and center Al Horford ranking sixth respectively in assists per game for their positions, combining for five helpings a game. I don’t think a defense can stop or prevent good ball movement necessarily. What the Cavs can do as always is play good team defense and limit the amount of easy baskets and open perimeter shots by the Hawks. They’ll have to be crisp with their communication because if there is a breakdown, Atlanta will likely find the open man.
2. Who gets the better of the point guard matchup: Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving Atlanta’s Jeff Teague?
CM: At their bests, Irving is the far better player. But considering his struggles on offense – and his inability to defend the pick & roll game – I think Teague has the advantage. Atlanta is going to come down the floor time & time again running plays right at Irving and he won’t be able to do anything to stop them. Teague, on the other hand, will be able to do a good job on Irving and preform well on both ends of the floor. Sans an amazing efficient scoring performance from Irving where his Atlanta counterpart can’t stay in front of him, Teague will win this matchup. Basically, get ready to see double-digits examples of how bad Irving is at defending pick & rolls.
TM: Right now? I’m taking Teague. Kyrie’s been a better scorer than Teague so far this season (Somehow), but Teague has a huge edge on the defensive end. Teague is just a much more talented on-ball defender, and he’s more disciplined than Kyrie on both ends. Teague’s also a much better player in the pick-and-roll, which is where I think the Hawks are going to ruin the Cavs on Friday. The stats are pretty similar for both guys right now, but watching both play, I like Teague to have a good game moreso than Kyrie.
MA: Irving and Teague have put up similar numbers thus far. They’ve been solid but plagued with inconsistencies, with both struggling to shoot the ball from the outside. Irving, who is four years younger than his counterpart, is a worse defender but a more gifted offensive player and better long-range shooter. In their two matchups last season, both were spectacular with Teague averaging 21 points and eight assists on 60 percent shooting, while Irving scored 30.5, handed out 4.5 dimes and shot 65.7 percent. I expect both players to score the basketball in this game, but I’ll take Teague tonight because the Hawks have other offensive weapons that the Cavaliers will have to key on (Horford, Millsap and Korver beyond-the-arc) which will allow Teague to play his game without trying to force the issue.
3. The Cavaliers’ frontcourt will have its hands full against Paul Millsap and Al Horford. How can Cleveland neutralize Atlanta’s big men?
CM: When the Cavaliers are on offense, Andrew Bynum should be able to get good looks even against the defensively stout Horford. But on defense, but Horford and Millsap will be too quick for Bynum to be able to stay in front of them. As for Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson, it’s going to be hit or miss here. Thompson – coming off his best game of the season – is going to be challenged by Millsap at the four spot. TRILLSAP is quick, an excellent rebounder and has an underrated offensive game. It’s going to take a A+ effort from Thompson to slow down Millsap. As for Horford, he’s one of the most underrated players in the league and the Cavs don’t have anyone to matchup with him. The basic offense games of Varejao and Thompson will be easily handled by Horford’s stout defense and, on offense, his diverse game will give whomever defends him fits. And unfortunately, the Cavaliers cannot double down on him because Atlanta has a plethora of shooters – namely Kyle Korver – who can make the Wine & Gold pay. All in all, it’s going to take great individual efforts from Bynum, Thompson and Varejao to slow down Millsap and Horford on both ends of the floor.
TM: Defensively, the Cavs are going to have to double-teams and throw different looks at the Hawks in order to confuse their big men. Even then, I’m not sure that can be effective. Horford’s far quicker than Bynum, meaning Thompson or Varejao should get major minutes on Big Al. However, that would leave Bynum on Paul Millsap, which seems like a recipe for disaster as well. I think a lot of Thompson/Varejao is in the cards. Offensively, I think the Cavs are going to have to be very smart with the ball in the post. Horford’s an excellent post defender, and Millsap is one of the best ballhawks in the league at the forward spot. Bynum and Thompson will have to be very efficient with their decision making, because stalling could lead to Horford killing any quality shot attempt, and one lazy pass could mean a steal and bucket from any of the Hawks starters, really. The Cavs are going to have to play smart on both ends in the front court.
MA: Like I said earlier, what makes the Hawks dangerous offensively is their passing ability from all spots on the floor. They complement each other quite well. Millsap can stretch you all the way out to the three-point line or take his game into the paint, while Horford has been on fire from mid-range and is always a load inside. Tristan Thompson and Andrew Bynum theoretically should be able to at least prevent the Hawks duo from having monster games, but it all starts with defending the pick-and-roll. Teague is quick and slippery coming off the screen but has been terrible from long range (26 percent) so don’t be surprised to see Irving come under the pick. Cleveland would rather have Teague shoot a contested three, than play pick-and-pop with Horford who’s been deadly accurate this season. In both match-ups, the Cavaliers hold the size advantage so we’ll see if Millsap can create space for himself with his quickness, while Horford will likely be forced to get his points off ball movement, offensive rebounding and pick-and-rolls.