We’ve talked off and on all season about swagger. The Hawks have talked often enough about it themselves. Tomorrow, they face a team that has more reason (on paper or plaque at least) to walk around with swagger than arguably any team in the league.
The Cleveland Cavaliers. Oh yeah. A team that boasts not only the 2009 Coach of they Year, but also the 2009 MVP. They have the league’s best regular season record. Oh, and they also have the league’s best defense, with a + 8.92 differential between what they average on offense vs. what they allow the opposition to average.
Wow. Is is just me, or does that sound like a more daunting matchup than the one we had last year, in which we faced off against the league’s best team? Deja Vu as it may seem, there is a difference between this year and last. Last year, the Hawks barely earned their way into the playoffs, which is rewarded with an automatic pairing up with the top team in the conference. This year, the Hawks have earned THE RIGHT to face the top team in the conference by winning their first round series. Heady stuff for Hawks fans and players alike, though veterans like Mike Bibby and Joe Johnson have been here before ( Flip Murray and Maurice Evans to a lesser extent).
The Hawks come in as a serious underdog. The Cavaliers come in as a favorite, no doubt with an NBA championship on their minds. Considering Cleveland’s record this year, and the fact that Mike Brown was Coach of they Year, you’d automatically think that the Cavs are going to be very focused on the task before them. You’d think that Brown will have them well-prepared. And you’d probably be right. But…the thing about swagger is that you can easily overdo it. Ask the Celtics, who swaggered right on into Phillips Arena last year, only to come come out cursing and licking their wounds, all the way back to Boston, where they managed to win the series.
Will the Cavs, very well-rested over the course of 8 or 9 days, swagger too hard? Or will they come out focused and hungry, anxious to return to the last dance in the East? Will they still be slightly intoxicated with a complete sweep of their first round opponents? Or will they have a full respect of the Hawks’ vaunted athleticism and penchant for making Phillps Arena the last place on earth you want to come to?
The pundits and “experts” have to be licking their chops, looking at this matchup on paper. After the Hawks took out TNT/ESPN media darling Wade and the Heat, they’ll be all over LeBron, as if they hadn’t seen him before. And while LeBron is a much more likeable personality than the one we recently discovered in Wade, the level of media disrespect to our team is only going to grow, rather than shrink. Funny, I could have sworn we just WON a playoff series.
All that aside, there are key matchups to explore. To outline just a few:
You can’t start anywhere with the Cavs without discussing LeBron first. He is more potent than Wade, hands down. Where Wade had speed and skill, LeBron adds sheer strength and power. He can’t truly be guarded one-on-one. And yet, if we have a fully healthy Marvin Williams, we have a good chance of “containing” him. At 6′9″ 245, with a 7′3″ wingspan and good lateral speed, Marvin can’t stop LeBron, but he sure can bother him. And bothering is often the difference between 25-30 points…and 40+. On the offensive end, Marvin can be a tough matchup if he’s involved in the action early and often. Believe me, Miami was glad to see very little of him.
Horford vs. Ilgauskas. Big Z is crafty, tall, and has long arms. He possesses a smooth jumper out to 17 or 18 feet, a decent hook shot, and barely has to jump to get rebounds. It won’t be easy to deal with him, but if the Hawks can use Horford’s quickness to do it, he can be nullified some. Fact is, big Z can’t keep up with Horford across the length of the court, and if he can be drawn out from the paint, Horford is quick enough to drive past him. The biggest thing will be keeping Z from getting a high number of rebounds. He always manages to capitalize on them by executing quick put-backs on offense, and effective outlet passes on defense.
Mo Williams vs. whoever draws the assignment of guarding him. Common sense says it won’t be Bibby most of the time. Williams is too quick and has a knack for creating his own shot. He can get into the lane, hit the midrange jumper, and even nail the 3. Joe Johnson can stop him easily, but we can’t afford to have him chasing Mo all day. Bibby will have to shoulder some of the load, but a lot will fall on Flip Murray as well. And while it won’t be like guarding Wade, it will nonetheless be a challenge. Here is a spot that a healthy Acie would be great to have (on either end of the floor). However, between back issues and a severe lack of playing time when he WAS healthy, there are questions as to how effective he could be. Look for Mario West to maybe get a few minutes here as well.
Finally, there is the Flopzilla versus the Stormin’ Georgian. The former (for those who can’t figure it out) is none other than Anderson Varejao. The latter is our own belove Zaza Pachulia. If you think this isn’t a matcup, you’re crazy. Both guys give their teams a major boost off the bench, and they do it in both similar and dissimilar ways. Neither has especially favorable matchups against the respective opposing teams, but both will be sorely needed. The play of one or the other can seriously affect the overall play of their teams. Need an example? Pachulia provides a taller, heavier body against the likes of Big Z. And Varejao provides a quicker, more mobile option against Al Horford. Both guys will fight like mad for rebounds and try to make defensive plays. Varejao will try to draw fouls on guys like Horford and Smith, while Pachulia will present a bigger offensive threat to the Cavs than his counterpart will to the Hawks.
Then there’s Josh Smith. Due to his inconsistent play, he’s about as much of an X-factor as there is for the Hawks. If the Hawks involve him early on, in ways that give him the most chance at success…and if he stays within such a gameplan and committs to rebounding and defending with ferocity…he’ll terrorize the Cavs. If he doesn’t, then the scope of Atlanta’s offense and defense is automatically weakened.
Lastly, there is Bibby and Joe Johnson vs. Mike Brown’s defense. Simply put, if the Hawks don’t find ways to free these guys up, the whole thing is a moot point. Joe can create for himself, but will struggle against sagging double and triple teams. Giving Bibby open looks is one way to keep the defense honest. The Hawks have to be ready for a defense that will not only try harder, but be more effective than the one the Miami Heat used to limit Johnson in 5 out of 7 games.
Do you think there are other key matchups in this series that bear watching? Can the Hawks do more than just provide the Cavs a tuneup for the next round? Sound off!