ATLANTA -- One of the intriguing aspects of this NBA postseason is the new blood in the final four, the new storylines with new faces in new settings with a new champion forthcoming. New, new, new.
But really how new is it?
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks East finals matchup certainly has this fresh feel outwardly. Most of the core players who will take the court Wednesday night will be playing in their first conference finals game. But just below the surface, there are relics from an old rivalry.
At the heart of this series is LeBron James against the San Antonio Spurs’ way, the matchup from the last two NBA Finals. Of all the organizations that have tried to mimic their style and game plans over the past decade, the Hawks are the closest thing we’ve seen to Spurs 2.0. James has been battling it for years now, stretching through three Finals. Here these two forces are again.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer figures to go back to the well-worn notebooks he filled alongside Gregg Popovich for this series, especially when it comes to James. The teammates may be different, but what the Hawks throw at James could resemble what the Spurs have done with him so many times in the past.
Last June, James wasn’t just beaten by perhaps the greatest Spurs team of all time, he was impressed by them. After the Heat took their final lashing in Game 5 and their two-title run was officially over, James sat back and just marveled at what he’d seen in all the ball movement, player movement and relentless teamwork that had dealt him his most lopsided playoff defeat ... well, since the Spurs did something similar to him in the 2007 Finals.
“They dominated us in every facet,” James said after the Spurs won the title. “So many high basketball IQ guys, high-energy guys that fit into the system.”
The Hawks don’t have the same roster of Hall of Famers, but the system and the concepts are much the same. The hill for James to climb to best the Hawks -- who haven’t resembled the Spurs as much over the last two months as they did earlier in the season -- is probably not as high as it was when facing the real thing last year. But James’ supporting cast also doesn’t have the experience or, thanks to injuries, the depth he brought to the table with the Heat against the Spurs over the past few seasons.
“Part of the reason they were the No. 1 team in our conference, because they share the ball, they move well, you can’t key in on just one guy,” James said. “They became a team very quickly when Bud took over, so I look forward to going against that team, going against the matchups, because I understand their style of play.”
James indeed knows what to expect; he’s seen it so many times. Popovich never truly believed in James as a jump shooter -- or at the very least, he always believed that was the option he could live with. Popovich’s standard game plan was to challenge James to beat them with his isolation jumper.
Cavs coach David Blatt knows this well, too. When he was coaching in Europe, several times he traveled to San Antonio in the offseason to study the way the Spurs did business. He spent time during these missions with Budenholzer discussing a number of things, including how he sees the game, and perhaps how the Spurs handled James as well.
“I had the opportunity to meet and sit with Mike in San Antonio on a few different occasions; he’s a terrific basketball mind,” Blatt said. “He’s just done a great job, and obviously, he’s coming from a great school of basketball and a winning situation. He’s got all my respect.”
Sometimes the plot proved to be a dud. James' drilling huge jumpers in Game 7 to close out the 2013 Finals was the best example of him beating the trap. Other times the numbers played out, especially when James has not completely trusted his supporting cast.
The Hawks certainly know James is shooting just 37 percent in the postseason on shots from 10 to 16 feet, and only slightly better (about 38 percent) on longer 2-pointers. His 3-point shooting has been horrid, just 15 percent. Without Kevin Love to act as a counterbalance and with James playing a little tighter and holding the ball, he’s become easier to predict and guard. This is exactly what the Spurs used to aim for and what the Hawks will also look to exploit.
With the season series between the teams relatively insignificant because of injuries and the fact that three of the games took place before the Cavs made their major January trades, there is an uncertainty to how this matchup will play out. But James is preparing himself for some old headaches.
“I went against Bud so many series with San Antonio, knowing he was a part of that,” James said. “He definitely brought some of the things that he learned from Pop over.”