LeBron James is still the king of the NBA. Right?
His Cleveland Cavaliers took down the Chicago Bulls 4-2 in their last playoff series, despite Kevin Love being out for the season and Kyrie Irving’s injuries turning him into a hobbled, almost ineffectual version of himself. Derrick Rose and Co. were meant to be the biggest threat to James’ throne, but he ultimately looked fairly comfortable pushing them off of it.
Up next in LeBron’s challenge to prove he’s still the world’s alpha baller is the Atlanta Hawks, a team who made mutton of the Cavs all season and lit up the league with 60 wins and four All-Star appearances. Atlanta needed six games to thwart the malaise-struck Brooklyn Nets in the first round, however, and six more to beat the Washington Wizards despite a serious injury to John Wall.
While the Hawks are not facing any injury issues as damning as losing Love for the year, they have been slowed by body hurts and fatigue. None of their starters have operated with close to the same kind of efficiency as they did in the regular season, with point guard Jeff Teague having some especially noticeable struggles. There’s a lengthy debate to be had about whether the Hawks expelled too much of their batteries in the regular season, and don’t have enough left to prove themselves when it really matters.
Atlanta also comes into the series without Thabo Sefolosha, who’s out for the year with a broken fibula. Sefolosha is a seldom noticed reserve, but he happens to have guarded LeBron on the biggest stage possible before—in the NBA Finals, as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012—and to have done it fairly well. That task will fall largely on DeMarre Carroll’s shoulders with Thabo out.
In order to beat the Cavs, who should be riding a formidable emotional train after their surprisingly authoritative putdown of the Bulls, Atlanta has to be a team they haven’t been in several weeks. Maybe they can be, but it’ll come as a surprise that you might not want to put your money on.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 6
— John Wilmes