The Cleveland Cavaliers are back in the Eastern Conference Finals, and it’s no coincidence that this has been because of the return of four-time MVP LeBron James.
He will look to lead his team to the NBA Finals for the fifth consecutive year as they take on the Atlanta Hawks, who finished with the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Hawks were the biggest surprise in the NBA as they showed dramatic improvement, and head coach Mike Budenholzer took home Coach of the Year honors.
James has put on another fantastic playoff performance in his first postseason back with the Cavaliers, as he has shown no sign of slowing down.
Although James struggled in the Cavaliers’ Game 6 win against the Chicago Bulls with only 15 points, he came up with nine rebounds and 11 assists.
He has averaged 26.5 points per game to go with 10.2 rebounds and 7.9 assists. His most notable performance came in Game 5 against the Bulls when he scored 38 points with 12 rebounds and six assists.
However, James’ field goal percentage dipped significantly against the Bulls as he only made 39.9 percent of his shots after making 46.7 of them against the Boston Celtics.
This will give him more ammunition to take on the Atlanta Hawks defense, although it has not been as threatening since a season-ending tibia injury to shooting guard and defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha.
The Hawks defense has come on strong recently, as they never allowed more than 91 points to the Washington Wizards in their last two games.
However, their defense has proven to be vulnerable at times as they allowed at least 100 points to the Wizards three times, and that resulted in a loss twice.
They also allowed the Brooklyn Nets to score 120 points in one of their first-round losses.
Despite the loss of Sefolosha, the Hawks still have plenty of capable defenders, as four of their players earned All-Defensive votes.
These players include small forward DeMarre Carroll, who will receive the ultimate task in guarding James.
James averaged 24 points in the Cavaliers’ first three meetings with the Hawks before being held to 18 points and committing nine turnovers in their regular-season finale.
Other Hawks players who received All-Defensive votes are power forward Paul Millsap, point guard Jeff Teague and center Al Horford.
Carroll is expected to continue being the primary scorer for the Hawks after averaging 16.7 points in the series against the Wizards, and this would be even higher if not for a dreadful five-point performance in Game 4.
He finished strongly with 25 points and 10 rebounds in their series-clinching win, and that marked his second consecutive double-double.
The Hawks will look to take advantage of the absence of Cavaliers power forward Kevin Love, who is out for the rest of the playoffs with a shoulder injury.
Point guard Kyrie Irving will be back after suffering tendinitis in his left knee, but expectations for him to be at 100 percent should be tempered.
Nonetheless, the Cavaliers are a threat to beat anyone as long as they have James healthy. Expect them to eke out a road win to begin the series.
Prediction: Cavaliers 99, Hawks 93