Will the Atlanta Hawks be able to deny LeBron James a fifth straight trip to the NBA Finals? Our 5-on-5 crew breaks down the East finals between the No. 1-seeded Hawks and the 2-seed Cleveland Cavaliers.
1. Who faces more pressure in the series: James or David Blatt?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: LeBron James, and hear me out. So far as job security, yeah, Blatt has a lot on the line. But as time passes, nobody will remember whether or not a head coach performed up to standards (provided he doesn't call a timeout that he doesn't have to tip the balance of a series). But for every big series, LeBron James is engraved into the annals of NBA history. If the Cavs flame out, it will color his decision to return home in all the wrong ways, especially after four consecutive Finals appearances in Miami.
Amin Elhassan, ESPN.com: Blatt, without question. LeBron's Teflon at this point: two championships, a zillion MVP trophies and the role as the Great Forgiver coming back to Cleveland. Blatt, on the other hand, gets constantly ridiculed for his sensitivity about being called a rookie coach; he gets all of the blame when the team loses and none of the credit when it wins. (And in wins like Game 4 at Chicago, he gets some blame!) Fairly or not, any slip up by the Cavs will inevitably fall on Blatt's doorstep.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider: James. David Blatt got his free pass once Kelly Olynyk wrecked Kevin Love's shoulder. The pressure's off the "rookie coach," but James is held to a higher standard than anyone in the sport. Heavy lies the crown.
Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com: Blatt, mostly because there is no way any scrutiny at this stage of James' career can match what he was already subject to from 2010 to 2012. Blatt has bristled all year long at any suggestions that he's a "rookie coach," and he might want to brace himself for that storyline to be trotted out once again should the Cavs struggle, especially since his foil on the opposite sideline is this season's coach of the year in Mike Budenholzer.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: James. The player always has more pressure; he's got to play. Though LeBron doesn't have much personally on the line here, he wants to win, of course, but it's not exactly career defining. If you can get past the faulty timeout, and I know that's quite an ask, Blatt has done a good job thus far.
2. Who or what is the key for the Hawks?
Arnovitz: Ball movement, people movement and quick recoveries in their interior-focused defensive scheme. The Hawks have to be themselves, the team that won 60 regular-season games and acquitted themselves well against the league's best competition. That means resisting the temptation to play one-on-one ball (Paul Millsap is the possible exception). Defensively, if they're going to send multiple bodies to the ball as they have all season, then they must shift selectively. Otherwise, they'll get punished.
Elhassan: Kyle Korver has to get out of his funk and make shots. He's shooting 35 percent from downtown this postseason, down from his regular season mark of 49.2 percent. Those struggles are probably a big reason why Atlanta's offense hasn't looked like itself so far during these playoffs. The Hawks gave the Cavs fits during the regular season, because the ball and their bodies were in constant motion, requiring a level of defensive attention to detail and discipline that Cleveland just didn't have. They need to get back to that to be successful.
Haberstroh: Korver. The All-Star has been quiet thus far in the playoffs, and he's the one Hawk that can completely scramble a playoff playbook with his homing-missile shooting. He won't shoot 35 percent from 3 for long. Last time he shot this poorly over a 12-game sample? He erupted for six 3-pointers (March 9 vs. Sacramento).
McMenamin: Getting Korver going. The Hawks' sharpshooter was terrible against Washington, averaging just 7.0 points on 31.3 percent shooting and a 28.6 percent mark from the outside. When he's hitting shots, he's the definition of a make-you-pay player. Opposing defenses wouldn't dare sag off him to try to put another body in front of Jeff Teague when he penetrates. But when Korver goes cold, defenses can go back to loading up in the lane because Korver really isn't going to hurt them any other way.
Windhorst: Korver needs to become a weapon again. The Wizards had a game plan ready that the Cavs are sure to mimic. They limited the side-to-side ball movement, and that prevented Korver from running go-to sets. He's also been in a slump, by his standards.
3. What is the most intriguing matchup in this series?
Arnovitz: Jeff Teague and Al Horford against the Cavs' pick-and-roll defense. The Hawks will have their motion offense hummin', but their ability to play through the cycle into pick-and-roll and pop options will be essential if their perimeter shots aren't falling. Kyrie Irving is gimpy, and is no great shakes against high screens, even when healthy. Meanwhile, the more the Hawks can draw Timofey Mozgov away from the rim, the greater the floor will open up for quick drives and cuts.
Elhassan: LeBron vs. everybody! Seriously, how the Hawks defend James will be fascinating. DeMarre Carroll is an excellent on-ball defender with size -- the same kind of profile as Jimmy Butler, who did a tremendous job for Chicago. We might even see Paul Millsap spend time guarding James, especially if the Cavs decide to play small ball.
Haberstroh: LeBron James vs. name the Hawk. Carroll kept James in check with 3-of-15 shooting during the regular season, but he won't have Thabo Sefolosha around to relieve him from James duties. The funny thing is that Millsap may have to slide down to guard James in a pinch, but he's probably smaller than the Cav.
McMenamin: Carroll vs. LeBron. Carroll is leading Atlanta in postseason scoring with 17.1 points per game on an ultra-efficient 52.4 percent from the floor and 43.9 percent from 3. Can he come close to giving the Hawks that kind of lift while simultaneously using his energy to try to harness James? James shot just 39.9 percent from the field and 10.7 percent from 3 (not a typo) in the second round with Butler matched up on him, and he admitted Carroll reminds him of the Bulls shooting guard, saying, "They both take the challenge. I relish the challenge. I love the challenge in both of them."
Windhorst: Jeff Teague vs. Kyrie Irving. The Cavs need Irving to be his attacking self -- what they got for just 2.5 games last series. On the other end, Teague has to punish Irving and force the Cavs into some switches that the Hawks can exploit.
4. Who or what will be the X-factor in this series?
Arnovitz: The Hawks' bench. Atlanta hasn't shown off its pretty January choreography, you say? Tell that to the Hawks' starting unit, which is a plus-16.7 per 100 possessions for the postseason (twice their regular-season rating). But the bench unit, minus Sefolosha, has hemorrhaged whenever a starter leaves the floor. The Hawks got away with it against Brooklyn and Washington, but Cleveland will be less forgiving.
Elhassan: For the Cavs, I'm going with Tristan Thompson. His boundless energy makes him a constant threat on the offensive glass, and his above-the-rim athleticism is something no player on Atlanta can really match. The attention devoted to more-heralded offensive players on the Cavs should allow Thompson to roam freely and clean up on putbacks and cuts.
Haberstroh: Irving's health. James has too many miles to carry the offense for another two rounds; the four-time MVP already is slogging through the least-efficient postseason of his career. Irving has to prove that his body is more reliable than a 33-year-old Dwyane Wade. Atlanta's the toughest defense they've faced by far.
McMenamin: The Cavs' defense. Cleveland's defensive numbers through the first two rounds of the playoffs were outstanding. The Cavs held opponents to 92.6 points on 40.8 percent shooting and just 98.8 points per 100 possessions overall. If Cleveland can come close to replicating that defensive success against Atlanta's equal-opportunity offense, it will be in great shape for this series.
Windhorst: Korver. If he gets going, he can terrorize a defense. The fact that he hasn't been making shots is even more worrisome for the Cavs.
5. Which team advances and in how many games?
Arnovitz: Atlanta in seven. The Cavs were a below-average defensive team even after the Mozgov-Shumpert-Smith deals. They would be one of the worst defenses ever to qualify for the Finals, and I'm skeptical they can guard the Hawks for seven games. So there's that. They're also down Love. And Irving's lower body needs an eight-week ice bath. Finally, the Hawks have the home-court advantage.
Elhassan: I'm dropping a scalding hot take with this one: Cavs in five. James hasn't been top notch this playoffs, but neither have the Hawks. And I think now that the Cavs have come this close to the promised land, James' intensity combined with his ability to impact the game in so many different ways puts him in a different space. Also, one of the unintended consequences of the injuries Cleveland is dealing with is that higher-caliber defenders get to step up and play more minutes.
Haberstroh: Cleveland in seven. For me, this is a toss-up, but James is the tiebreaker. This whole Carmelo Anthony act is getting old, but I think he plays just well enough to reach the Finals a fifth straight season. Admittedly, picking a team to win in seven is the NBA prognosticator equivalent of a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
McMenamin: Cleveland in six. The Cavs' remarkable season will march on, as long as Irving can stay healthy.
Windhorst: I'm out of the prediction business. Cavs have the two best players, Hawks have the better system. We'll see.