3 Things: East-leading Hawks face tough test against surging Cavs

The Atlanta Hawks hold a 10 1/2-game lead in the Eastern Conference.

Brett Davis/Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Holding onto a commanding — perhaps insurmountable — lead in the Eastern Conference, the Atlanta Hawks face yet another pivotal opportunity to reaffirm their claim to the No. 1 seed as the playoffs approach.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, who share a claim to the East’s No. 2 seed, are in town for the fourth meeting between the two teams, and after lopsided results and injuries have shifted the dynamics of previous meetings, Friday night’s meeting in Philips Arena should offer a potential conference finals preview. Can the top-seeded Hawks take the season series by downing the preseason favorites? Have the Cavaliers closed the gap with recent additions and added chemistry? Here are three things to keep an eye in the hyped showdown:

A little background on the 2014-15 matchup between these two teams: In the season series opener, the Hawks were missing wing defender DeMarre Carroll and couldn’t buy an outside shot. LeBron James went off for 32 points and the Cavs sent the Hawks packing with a 127-94 win. The Hawks returned the favor in the second meeting, notching a 127-98 win without the help of Jeff Teague. (Dennis Schroder and Shelvin Mack combined for 34 points and 13 assists in his absence.)

Then there’s Game 3. It remained close thanks to the exploits of Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving, but with LeBron out of the lineup the Hawks were able to hold on.

So what’s the best way to judge this matchup when we haven’t seen the post-trade deadline edition?

The last Hawks-Cavaliers matchup came with a four-time MVP on the bench and before Cleveland traded Dion Waiters and acquired rim protector Timofey Mozgov and guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. The Hawks have not made any substantial additions during that span — but, again, why mess up a good thing? That East lead has only grown in the meantime.

Cleveland still has defensive issues, but it has worked its way up to fourth in offensive efficiency. LeBron & Co. are starting to live up to the hype, winning 20 of their past 24 games. Many are calling them the Eastern Conference favorites to reach the NBA Finals.

When these two teams met in late December, the Cavs left five games over .500. They are now 15 games above .500.

The Hawks remain one of the more balanced teams in the league — yes, the "lack of a rim protector" narrative is overblown — and they’ll need to be at their best against a team that will undoubtedly be looking to send another message like it did against the Warrios and Raptors recently.

If these two are truly on a postseason collision course, this should be the most telling meeting to date.

LeBron James and DeMarre Carroll have met on the court just once this season.

With Carroll and James missing separate meetings, the Cavaliers have either avoided Atlanta’s top wing defender or Atlanta has avoided, you know, that 6-foot-8 guy. So Friday night should bring a motivated James against a guy in Carroll who embraces such high-profile assignments.

To be clear, guarding LeBron is never a one-man job. It takes a team, five guys working in unison. The Hawks do this better than most, using help defenders to clog driving lanes and trusting Al Horford and Paul Millsap to make life difficult at the rim. James is averaging 26.3 points, 7.3 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game this season — just your ho-hum typical season from the future Hall of Famer — and disrupting that production is crucial. When James is held to a game score of 15 or lower, as he was in his previous game against Atlanta, the Cavs are 8-10 this season.

If James gets going (and gets his teammates going), on the other hand, Cleveland is one of the toughest outs in the NBA.

It should be mentioned, though, that the last time Carroll got a shot at King James he held him to 21 points. The use of the term "held" is relative here. Twenty-point games are still good games for most. Still, a select few teams have held James under 22 this season, and the Hawks blew the Cavs out that night.

Additionally, Carroll offset LeBron’s production with 13 points and four rebounds. The Hawks will take that every single time.

Given the spotty contributions of Kevin Love and the defense-first presence of Mozgov, the Hawks All-Star frontcourt of Millsap and Horford should have the advantage here.

While big man Tristan Thompson gives Cleveland a lift off the bench, the versatility of Atlanta’s big men should cause some problems.

First, on the offensive end, there are potential mismatches everywhere. Love has never been a standout defender, and having to guard either Horford or Millsap can be difficult. They can space the floor, find the open man and get to the free-throw line. Can Love help keep the duo in check? Will Mosgov or Thompson be able to defend the bigs away from the rim, perhaps out to the 3-point line?

In the Hawks’ last outing, an up-and-down affair with an undermanned Houston squad, Millsap and Horford combined to score 34 points and grab 22 rebounds. If this turns into more of a halfcourt affair, the Hawks frontcourt will need to play well.