Round two of the NBA Playoffs is starting to take shape as more and more teams finish off their first round series. But out of the four series that we will see in the second round, only two have been decided so far, with the Cleveland Cavaliers set to take on the Atlanta Hawks and the Oklahoma City Thunder primed to oppose the San Antonio Spurs. Both of these series pit familiar conference foes against one another, with a spot in the conference finals on the line for each of the teams involved. So who has the edge in each series?
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Atlanta Hawks
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks met in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, with the Cavaliers cruising to the NBA Finals by winning four games in that series. In that matchup, the Hawks were the top seed in the East after one of the best regular seasons in franchise history. This time, however, it is Cleveland who is the top seed in the East, while the Hawks sit in fourth place. That means home court advantage for the Cavaliers, which typically means bad news for their opponents.
In the first round of the NBA Playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers received tremendous contributions from each of their top three players, with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love each making an impact in all four of their games against the Detroit Pistons. James was flexible enough to play some power forward, from which he distributed the ball beautifully and scored on smaller defenders. Irving and Love, meanwhile, were both great perimeter shooters in the series, with Irving avoiding turnovers and Love grabbing rebounds with great proficiency.
Atlanta, on the other hand, simply outlasted a less experienced Boston Celtics team in the first round, winning their series by four games to two. Paul Millsap was dominant at times for the Hawks, while Kent Bazemore was a lethal three point shooter and made so many key plays in the series, especially in its final two games which both saw the Hawks win by convincing margins to secure the series victory and get to this round.
As far as this series is concerned, both teams possess some advantages over their opponents, as well as some similarities that will make things just a little bit tougher on each team. One of those similarities is the versatility of at least one big man on each squad, as the Hawks have been great at spreading the floor and hitting perimeter shots with Al Horford and Millsap, while Love for the Cavaliers is capable of doing the same thing. That makes the outside shooting of those players even more vital, and puts a spotlight on Tristan Thompson as well for Cleveland. Thompson is the least versatile big in this series for either team, as his low post-centric game will either put Cleveland ahead in the series or hurt them as he’s not used to defending on the perimeter quite as much as those other players.
While the Atlanta Hawks did look very good in the first round of the playoffs, that was against a team that isn’t experienced in the playoffs and one they were supposed to beat. The Cleveland Cavaliers are much better than the Boston Celtics, and have home court advantage on their side. For those reasons, and because Kevin Love is healthy this postseason as opposed to last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers are the smart pick to win this series.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
Both the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder destroyed their opponents in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, en route to this second round matchup between teams that have played each other in the playoffs many times before. Both teams are drastically different than previous meetings, though, with one side looking like a clear favorite to advance to what one would assume will be a meeting with the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
San Antonio is by far the superior team heading into this series. They have home court advantage over the Thunder by virtue of being the conference’s second seed, which means they will have to lose at home at least once to lose the series. The problem for the Oklahoma City Thunder is that the Spurs have only lost once at home all season, with that loss coming to the Warriors, who won more games this season than any other team in the history of the NBA.
Oklahoma City, meanwhile, comes in as the underdog but has playmakers capable of turning things around in a hurry in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Both of those players take turns doing the heavy lifting in the scoring department for the Thunder, who will need role players such as Dion Waiters and Steven Adams to step up in a hurry if they want any chance to pull a second round upset in this series.
It will be interesting to see where Kawhi Leonard ends up defensively for the Spurs in this series. The two time defending NBA defensive player of the year is skilled enough and quick enough defensively to guard both Durant and Westbrook, and might have to spend time guarding both for the Spurs to truly lock down a dangerous Oklahoma City Thunder offense. On the other end of the floor, San Antonio doesn’t have one player that stands out over the others. Their balance and ball movement is what destroys their opponents, as you never know who will be the one to make the crucial shots on a given night.
When push comes to shove in this series, both teams have two of the three most attractive offenses in the NBA, but the Spurs have home court advantage and cohesion that only the Warriors possess on a similar level. Pick San Antonio to win this series and enjoy being correct as a result, as San Antonio’s ball movement is so brilliant that not even two of the best players in the game like Durant and Westbrook can answer it.
By: Jason M. Sanin