The Atlanta Hawks just got done fighting off one NBA Most Valuable Player candidate and now they hope to do the same with the guy who actually won the award.
The former is a reference to guard Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat, who the Hawks beat in seven games in the first round. The latter is referring to LeBron James. And when it comes to slowing down James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, good luck.
James was named MVP one day before the second-round series tips off. While everyone expected him to win the award, actually receiving it is sure to provide an emotional high for a player who hardly needs any sort of lift. Still, the Hawks will have to find a way to at least make him work a little before shooting (or passing or rebounding, for that matter) -- something Detroit failed to do in the first round.
Still, if nothing else, at least the Hawks have plenty of recent experience dealing with an opposing team's do-it-all superstar. Then again, this is a new round and a whole new set of issues. There may not be a huge different between James and Wade, but this season, it's big enough.
Welcome to the second round, Atlanta.
Point Guard - Mo Williams vs. Mike Bibby
Bibby has more playoff experience, dating back to his days with the Sacramento Kings of the Chris Webber-Vlade Divac-Peja Stojakovic era. But Williams is the superior player today. Part of that has to do with the fact Williams plays alongside James, freeing him for good looks at the basket and helping him to play loose. After all, when you line up next to a star, your mistakes tend to be minimized. That said, Bibby is the point guard the Cavs tried to acquire long before Williams (and before Bibby ended up with the Hawks), and is still capable of the occasional big game, and especially, of hitting the occasional big shot. Advantage - Cleveland.
Shooting Guard - Delonte West vs. Joe Johnson
Not surprisingly, West did a nice job in the first round against the Pistons' Richard Hamilton, as West has become one of the most underrated backcourt defenders in the game. He'll have a more difficult task trying to handle Johnson, who's taller and a better passer than Hamilton. The differences don't end there, as Johnson's jumper seems to improve with distance. He's tall enough to shoot over you in the post, and deadly enough to bury you from beyond the three-point arc. So West's best bet will be to try to keep the Hawks' best player busy on defense by constantly moving without the ball and looking to shoot once he receives it. Advantage - Atlanta.
Small Forward - LeBron James vs. Mo Evans
Evans is filling in for injured starter Marvin Williams (wrist), who is expected to come off the bench. And while every player prefers to start, it wouldn't be surprising if Evans were sending Williams get-well wishes on a regular basis. That's because there's no real way to contain the Cavs' basketball king, as James is at the top of his game in every department. Seriously. He has no weaknesses, or at least, nothing you can look at and say it can be exploited. The one thing Evans can lean on is the fact that he's a pretty heady player with decent athleticism. He's not expected to have any success at all against LeBron, so if you look at it that way, he's in a no-lose situation. Advantage - Cleveland
Power Forward - Anderson Varejao vs. Josh Smith
Smith is extremely athletic, strong and a spectacular shotblocker who plays with tons of passion. He won't have to worry about shutting down Varejao (Varejao typically takes care of that himself), which means Smith can offer help on LeBron. The one thing Smith will have to be mindful of, however, is the fact Varejao isn't as inept with the ball as he once was, and now possesses an ability to knock down shots if left open. Varejao also knows how to get under an opponent's skin, something the emotional Smith will have to try to ignore. Otherwise, he'll be completely out of sorts and of little use to his team. Advantage - Atlanta.
Center - Zydrunas Ilgauskas vs. Al Horford
This will be the matchup of age vs. youth, a plodding and perimeter-oriented giant against a smaller but more agile big man. The problem for the Hawks here is Ilgauskas' game has moved further away from the basket, as he prefers to stand anywhere from 12-to-18 feet stationary and hit open shots after receiving a pass from a double-teamed James or driving Mo Williams. Horford, on the other hand, is more effective near the rim -- both offensively and defensively. If he can play Ilgauskas to a draw, or outplay him, the Hawks will have a chance in this series. Advantage - Cleveland.
Both sets of reserves have been inconsistent in the playoffs, with forward Joe Smith (Cleveland) and guard Flip Murray (Atlanta) being the only two consistent offensive weapons so far in the playoffs. But Smith has been so good, had he started the season in Cleveland, he likely would have been a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year honors. The Cavs will also be looking for more points from guards such as Wally Szczerbiak and Daniel Gibson (and Sasha Pavlovic should Gibson continue to sputter along), and the typical defense and rebounding from Ben Wallace -- whose beat-up body should have benefited from the long layoff between series. As for the Hawks, Zaza Pachulia will be counted on to provide his typical hustle and occasional point production. Advantage - Cleveland.
Coaching - Mike Brown vs. Mike Woodson
Every year it seems Woodson's job is on the line, despite the fact he has done an underrated job of coaxing this athletic, young team to play smarter and harder every season. If nothing else, you can expect the Hawks to bend their knees and shuffle their feet in this series, and Woodson deserves a lot of credit for that. Meanwhile, Brown's equally a wise defensive strategist, and has allowed the offense to become more free-flowing this season. Advantage - Even.
Overall, the Cavs have more playoff experience, the league‘s MVP, and got the long rest every team dreams of during this time of year. There's also more talented as a group. The Hawks are young and exciting, and if they stay focused, could give the Cavs a scare. But even if so, it won't last long.
Final prediction - Cavs in five.
Sam Amico is the editor of ProBasketballNews.com and a regular contributor to The Cleveland Fan and SportsTime Ohio.