CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (41-18)
at ATLANTA HAWKS (34-26)
Tip-off: Friday, 7:00 p.m. ET
Line: Cleveland -3, Total: 215
Two of the East’s best teams square off in Atlanta on Friday night.
The Cavaliers were once again participants in a nationally televised thriller on Wednesday night, coming up just short in Boston in a 103-99 loss to the Celtics (BOS -1.5). It was Cleveland’s second loss in three games, as they lost to Chicago last Saturday before beating Milwaukee on Monday. Prior to the Bulls loss, the Cavs had won eight of their last nine. At 41-18 (27-30-2 ATS), Cleveland leads the Eastern Conference standings by three games. They get another East playoff contender on Friday night in Atlanta, where they’ll play a Hawks team that beat Boston on Monday and Dallas on Wednesday, the latter by a 100-95 score (DAL +6). They’re now 2-2 after the All-Star break, as they had lost to Miami and Orlando late last week. The Hawks are currently in the No. 5 spot in the East at 34-26 (29-31 ATS), 3.5 games ahead of the sixth-place Bulls. Since 1996, teams coming off a win of six points or fewer (ATL) are 81-131 ATS in games played in the second half of the season that involve two teams allowing at least 102 points per game to opponents. Over the last five seasons, games involving a team with a winning percentage between .510 and .600 that has gone under the total by 42 or more total points in their last five teams (ATL) playing against a winning team are 44-18 Under against totals of at least 200. Former Cleveland SF Mike Dunleavy is out for Friday’s game for Atlanta, while the Cavs remain without PF Kevin Love and also expect to be without newly-acquired C Andrew Bogut.
The Cavaliers look like a very different team right now than they did at the beginning of the season, or even just a few weeks ago. SF Kyle Korver (10.3 PPG) was acquired from the Hawks a few days into January, and he has added a dangerous three-point threat to the Cleveland offense. He’s shooting 5.7 3PA per game with the Cavs and making a remarkable 50.4% of them. It’s an unsustainable pace, but he shouldn’t fall too far off of it with the spacing that his talented teammates create for him. PF Derrick Williams (7.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG) was brought on board in early February, and he’s playing nearly 25 minutes per game for Cleveland. His rim-cutting ability makes him a perfect target for LeBron James’ (25.7 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 8.9 APG, 1.4 SPG) signature pinpoint passes. Both Bogut (3.0 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 1.0 BPG) and PG Deron Williams (12.8 PPG, 6.7 APG) were signed to the team after being cut by their teams after the trade deadline. Williams only managed four points in his Cleveland debut against Boston, but got 24 minutes on the floor, including crunch-time action. After publicly complaining about the talent around him, James ought to be happy with the talent brought in. He has certainly done his part—he’s still the league’s best all-around player and is a deserving MVP candidate. PG Kyrie Irving (22.2 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.2 SPG) continues to grow into sidekick duties, and he shined with 28 points and a beautiful late-game layup against the Celtics. C Tristan Thompson (8.2 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 1.1 BPG) and SG Iman Shumpert (7.5 PPG, 1.0 SPG) appear to be fixtures in the starting lineup at this point, while PF Channing Frye (9.1 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 39.9 3P%) and SF Richard Jefferson (5.5 PPG) are key contributors. If and when Love (20.0 PPG, 11.1 RPG in 46 games) and SG J.R. Smith (8.6 PPG, 1.2 SPG in 21 games) return, this will be an incredibly deep team.
Dunleavy (5.2 PPG, 39.4 3P%) will miss his third straight game on Friday, and his 16-or-so minutes per game are giving some more opportunities to younger guys on a team that’s full of them. The primary beneficiary is rookie SF Taurean Prince (3.9 PPG), who has played 22 minutes per game in his last five games. His best outing was in the win over Boston, when he scored eight points and grabbed 12 rebounds. More prominent contributors at the position, though, are SGs Tim Hardaway Jr. (13.0 PPG) and Thabo Sefolosha (7.5 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.7 SPG), and SF Kent Bazemore (10.9 PPG, 1.3 SPG). Bazemore’s been the hottest of late, scoring 15 points in each of his last two games. Sefolosha, who is tied for 12th in the league in steals per game, has two of them in each of his last two games. Hardaway had back-to-back 25-plus-point games in mid-February, but hasn’t scored more than 15 in the five games since. The team’s leading scorer and lone All-Star, PF Paul Millsap (17.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.4 SPG, 1.0 BPG) was two rebounds away from a triple-double against Dallas, as he posted 18 points and 10 boards. He was key in beating Boston with a 17 and 10 line—it wasn’t quite the 45 and 13 he torched them with in Game 4 of last year’s Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, but it got the job done. Some were concerned with how his new frontcourt mate, C Dwight Howard (13.4 PPG, 12.9 RPG, 1.3 BPG), would fit into coach Mike Budenholzer’s motion-heavy offense, but he’s been a key player in the team’s winning campaign. His 21.8 PER leads the team, and he brings a rebounding (fourth in NBA) and defensive presence that the team lacked on the inside. PG Dennis Schroder (17.4 PPG, 6.3 APG) has surpassed expectations as a scorer and a starting point guard, and he had 21 on 9-of-14 shooting against Boston. In his fourth game with Atlanta, newly-added PF Ersan Ilyasova (14.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG) had 18 points against Dallas on 6-of-7 shooting.