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May 20, 2015 (Posted at 5:00 PM ET)

Take Atlanta Hawks at -1 spread against Cleveland Cavaliers risking 3% of the bankroll.

The two best teams in the Eastern Conference will square off tonight in front of what should be an energetic crowd when the Cleveland Cavaliers travel to Philips Arena to take on the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Throughout the season, many had predicted that the Cavaliers were the favorites to win the East this year, but it was actually the Atlanta Hawks who were one of the biggest surprises of the season and despite being the #1 seed in the East, this team still seems to be widely disrespected by the betting public. Despite their lack of a bonafide “superstar”, they have proven to be one of the most efficient offenses in the league. The Hawks are coached by Mike Budenholzer who spent much of his career learning from one of the best coaches in the game; Gregg Popovich. "Pop's" influence on Budenholzer clearly shows as the Hawks offense has adopted a style that is very similar to the San Antonio Spurs, where they rely heavily on ball movement and finding the open man. That style has worked well for them this season as four players are averaging between 15.3 and 17.1 points per game in the playoffs. 

Atlanta's frontcourt of Al Horford and Paul Millsap will present some difficult challenges for Cleveland in this game. Both Horford and Millsap have the ability to step out onto the perimeter and knock down shots, which will put a lot of pressure on the likes of Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson. The Hawks have already showed that they can score efficiently against the Cavaliers as they average 109 points per game while winning three of the four meetings in the regular season. Even though Cleveland looks quite a bit different now than it did during most of those contests, the Cavs defense, or more importantly, their lack thereof could help the Hawks offense regain some of its potency that was lacking in their series with the Wizards.  

Much of Atlanta's offense is initiated through Jeff Teague by dribble penetration, followed by ball and body movement to take advantage of a shifting defense. In their series with the Wizards, they had found a way to slow down Teague with both John Wall and Bradley Beal who are top notch defenders. In this series however, Kyrie Irving is dealing with an injury and Matthew Dellavedova is still learning how to adjust at an NBA level and both players are a massive step down defensively over what the Wizards employed to slow down Jeff Teague. Although the Cavs' defense improved with the acquisitions of Mozgov, Shumpert and Smith, they still don't deal well defending sets that involve secondary rotations. The Hawks have shown that teams being even a step slow with defensive reads and switches can be disastrous and Atlanta too many weapons for opponents to hide any defensive liabilities. Even their bigs demand attention away from the basket, so Mozgov and Thompson will have to make a defensive impact outside the restricted area or Atlanta can hurt them from the perimeter. 

Let's not forget that Cleveland is dealing with a number of injuries which severely limits what the Cavaliers have been able to do offensively. As mentioned, Kyrie Irving is dealing with an injury and the Cavs lost Kevin Love during their series with the Celtics. They do of course have LeBron James who is a nightmare matchup for any team and is averaging 26.5 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game in the playoffs. Even though James' numbers are impressive, he can't continue to win games on his own. He is going to need help and we’re not sure his secondary role players can provide the type of support needed to defeat a number 1 seed. James is not only leading the Cavs in postseason points, rebounds, assists and steals, he's leading by wide margins with 67 more points and 46 more assists than anyone else on the team. He also struggled mightily in their series with Chicago as he shot just 39.9 percent from the field and 10.7 percent from downtown. Part of that could be credited to the defense of Jimmy Butler, but James will face a similar challenge in this series when he is defended by DeMarre Carroll. Carroll has success against James in the regular season holding him to 3 of 15 from the field with 5 turnovers in their last meeting. In order to have success against James he will need to make him work at both ends of the floor. He has to limit James' touches on the screens or force the ball out of his hands when he gets it there and Carroll must actually make James defend him. If Carroll can convert his open looks and cause havoc with his cuts, James won't be able to roam into Atlanta's passing lanes which will open up opportunities for ball movement.

The area where the Hawks could have the biggest advantage tonight however is in the open court. Cleveland is a team that simply does not like to run. The Cavs played at the sixth-slowest speed during the regular season and averaged just 94.8 possessions per game and that number has actually decreased in the playoffs to a postseason low 92.9. The Hawks aren't exactly a run and gun team but adopting this style for this series could be their greatest advantage. Atlanta could use all of the easy baskets they can create right now and getting trapped into a half-court game could play right into Cleveland's hands. The Hawks are surrendering a postseason worst 1.02 points per possession in isolations, and are going up against a Cavaliers team that ranks first in postseason isolation frequency could spell trouble. Atlanta needs optimal spacing, deep dribble drives, precision passes and timely cuts to generate open looks which playing with tempo and in transition often allows for. The Hawks could also use tempo to exploit their advantage in depth. With both Love and Anderson Varejao on the shelf, the Cavs really only have two trustworthy bigs in Thompson and Mozgov. Atlanta should look to exploit that and run those guys right out of the gym. 

The Hawks also should be a better three-point shooting team in this contest, even though Kyle Korver has been struggling this postseason. He hasn't scored as often or as efficiently during the playoffs but the Hawks have still benefited tremendously from his presence. Atlanta averaged 6.5 more points per 100 possessions with him than without him over the first two rounds. His shot might not be falling at the moment, but it's still one that demands respect from the defense. Hitting or not, Korver demands relentless attention and he is a player that is constantly moving which often times proves to be too much for defenders to consistently stay on him. He is the type of player who only needs a little bit of space to get off a shot. His shooting slump won't continue forever and we expect him to come up big for his team in this series. For Cleveland, JR Smith has been coming off the bench, Love is gone and Irving has been inconsistent due to his various injuries. That's a lot of shooting that the Cavaliers heavily relied on that is now either completely gone or inconsistent at best. James Jones had some big games against the Bulls, but that can't be expected each and every time out and James' jump shot from long range hasn't been there this postseason. 

The city of Atlanta hasn't had a game this important in a long time and it may be easy for people to forget just how dominant this team has been. The crowd will no doubt be electric tonight and the Hawks will be ready. The win likely won't be easy as Cleveland is a talented team and deserves to be here, however Atlanta has proven time and time again that they are not a team that can be counted out. In a very important game 1, in front of their home crowd, we expect them to be ready and once again prove the public wrong by coming away with the win.  

Other notable facts to consider:

  • Hawks are 40-7 in Atlanta this season and 5-1 at home in the playoffs!
  • Hawks are 11-2 in home games when the total is in the 195 to 199.5 points range!
  • Hawks are 30-12 against teams with winning records this season!

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