ATLANTA (AP) — The Cleveland Cavaliers could only watch enviously as LeBron James made a run at another NBA title in Miami.
The Atlanta Hawks were trying to move on after a tough loss in the opening round of the playoffs.
My, how things have changed from a year ago in the Eastern Conference.
James returned to Cleveland last summer and turned the Cavaliers into instant title contenders. The Hawks pulled off a remarkable turnaround in Mike Budenholzer’s second season as coach, winning 60 games to claim the top seed in the East.
On Wednesday night, the teams will meet in Game 1 of the conference final.
For James, it’s championship or bust.
“I just try to lead these guys,” he said. “I just want them to be great. “
James, who won two titles with the Heat and lost in the NBA Finals his other two years, came back to Cleveland — where he started — looking to lead Cavaliers to their first championship.
He is halfway there, with the top-seeded Hawks standing in his way.
“He’s got his eyes on the prize,” Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore said after practice Tuesday. “We’ve got to go through him to get where we want to go.”
During his first seven seasons, James transformed the Cavaliers into one of the league’s top teams. But they made it to the Finals only one time, getting swept by San Antonio in 2007.
Now, he wants to bring a celebration to his de facto hometown.
“He has been a great leader for us,” said Cleveland point guard Kyrie Irving. “In terms of learning the nuances of the game and also how to win on the court and also how to carry ourselves off the court, I feel like he’s been a great influence in that role.”
While Cleveland’s 20-win improvement was to be expected after signing the world’s greatest player, no one projected the Hawks to make such a leap after going 38-44 a year ago. They set a franchise record with a 19-game winning streak and easily claimed the No. 1 seed in the East.
The playoffs have been more trying for Atlanta, which struggled to put away eighth-seeded Brooklyn in the opening round and got all it could handle from Washington in the second round, with two games decided by buzzer-beating shots and two others coming down to the closing seconds.
But the Hawks are in the conference final for the first time since the NBA switched to this format in 1970-71.
“It’s going to come down to the last couple of minutes. It’s going to come down to the last couple of possessions,” Budenholzer said. “You need to have confidence that you can get stops. You need to have confidence that you can execute and score. Whichever team is able to do that has the best chance.”
Here are some other things to watch for in the Eastern Conference final:
GUARDING LEBRON: DeMarre Carroll, known as the “Junkyard Dog,” relishes the idea of being the primary defender on James. “Try to harass him, be up in him, make it uncomfortable for him,” Carroll said. While James averaged nearly 24 points in three games against the Hawks during the regular season, he was held to 18 points and committed nine turnovers in their last meeting. James won’t be able to relax at the defensive end, either. Carroll is Atlanta’s leading scorer in the playoffs at 17.1 points a game.
MEDICAL REPORT: Cleveland’s health is a bit of a concern. Kevin Love is out, of course. Irving is slowed by tendinitis in his left knee, though a five-day break since the Cavaliers finished off Chicago in the second round has eliminated any doubt about playing in Game 1. Iman Shumpert (strained groin) and Tristan Thompson (bruised shoulder) are also banged up. The Hawks are healthy except for Thabo Sefolosha, who’s out for the year.
BATTLE OF THE BIGS: The Hawks face a size disadvantage against most teams, but they hope the quickness and mobility of center Al Horford and power forward Paul Millsap will work to their advantage against Thompson and Cleveland’s 7-foot-1 center, Timofey Mozgov. Look for the Cavaliers to counter at times with a smaller lineup that has the 6-8 Thompson at center and James at power forward.
KORVER’S SLUMP: Atlanta’s Kyle Korver is the best 3-point shooter in the NBA, but he’s struggled in the playoffs against defenses that are focused on keeping him from getting open looks. He’s made only 35 of 100 attempts from beyond the arc, and just one of his last 12 against the Wizards.
COACHING MATCHUP: Budenholzer has done a remarkable job molding the Hawks into a version of San Antonio East with a fast-paced, team-oriented philosophy in which no one stands out. The NBA’s coach of the year may give Atlanta big edge over Cleveland’s David Blatt, who tried to call a timeout his team didn’t have and drew up a last-second play that was vetoed by James in the Chicago series.