ATLANTA — Much will be made of the contrast in styles between the combatants in the Eastern Conference finals.
The ultimate superstar in LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers versus the ultimate team in the Atlanta Hawks and arguably the best starting unit in basketball this season. It sounds good and lends itself to the underlying drama every playoff series of this magnitude requires.
Whether or not there is any actual validity to that theory, however, remains to be seen.
We’ll know better after Game 1 tonight at Philips Arena (8:30 ET, TNT), when we get our first look at these two teams and their styles that have led them to the brink of fighting for a championship. There is no need in rehashing the particulars of how these teams have arrived here. The Cavaliers rely heavily on LeBron to trigger all things, on both ends of the floor. He is at the center of everything they do, the same as he’s always been on whatever team he’s played on, dating back to his biddy ball days in his native Akron.
The Hawks — their four All-Stars (Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver) and playoff MVP (DeMarre Carroll) — are focused around that five-man unit that has excelled all season long. When they needed to surge past Brooklyn in the first round, they took turns playing hero. Same goes for the way they handled things in the conference semifinals when they needed to squeeze past Washington.
While the Hawks’ main focus will be on LeBron and Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers know that they won’t have the luxury of locking into any single player in an effort to slow the Hawks down.
“For us defensively, we have to be in tune,” LeBron told reporters in Cleveland after practice earlier this week. “First of all, the most important thing is the ball and the ball is going to start in Jeff Teague’s hands and then from that point on to Kyle Korver to DeMarre Carroll to Al Horford to Paul Millsap on to the guys that come in after them.”
Cleveland’s role player have stepped up, particularly J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavadova, but they still won’t draw the focus of the Hawks the way LeBron and Kyrie will. The Hawks don’t change who and what they are based on the opponent, choosing instead to stick to the principles on both ends of the floor that produced their franchise-record 60-win season and breakthrough to the conference finals.
So even if there are some who are trying create the narrative that this series is a referendum on which style of play will prevail, the Hawks aren’t necessarily interested in playing that game. This isn’t a battle between the pace-and-space style and the hero ball style that has ruled the roost for years.
“Hero, that word,” Korver said. “It is unique. There’s only so many elite, elite superstars. The rest of us have to figure out how to win. So this is how we do it. And we feel like it’s a good way to play, a fun way to play. And a fun game to watch. This is who we are and we’ve all kind of taken turns taking and making shots at the end and it’s probably going to continue to be that way. The last series it felt like every game was down to the wire and different guys made different plays in different games. Gonna be the same thing this time around.”
Even if they don’t want to dive in on the narrative, Korver is well aware that the trial of this style versus that style will rage on.
“It feels like it’s been on trial for a while, huh?” he said. “Feels like we get asked this question a lot. Obviously, the fire keeps burning brighter. And that’s okay. That’s what we play for. We’re not here trying to sell the world that this is better than hero ball or whatever. This is just who we are and how we have to play and it gives us our best chance to win. And we’re just trying to do it the best that we can.”