The April NBA schedule is just about as boring an offering as any of the professional sports dish out to fans. With a lack of drama around the playoff races this April should prove no different. However, ESPN does have a pair of primetime games that have the looks of being potential conference final previews.
Atlanta Hawks (48-26) at Cleveland Cavaliers (59-16), 8 p.m. ET ESPN
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How They Enter
The Hawks have been as schizophrenic as any team in the league over the past few weeks. After a loss at Toronto they came back home and needed overtime to get past the Bobcats and Spurs. The next night they go out and lose at Milwaukee and follow that up four days later with a loss at the 76ers. In the midst of that poor stretch of basketball, Atlanta managed to knock off Orlando and come away with a rousing 17-point win over the Lakers in their last time out.
After Cleveland’s three-game losing streak following the All-Star Break, the Cavs have spent the last two months showing the entire league how much of an aberration that was. Since starting the second half of the season 0-3, Cleveland has gone on a 16-2 SU tear to solidify itself as the Eastern Conference power.
Everyone knows the Cavaliers strengths, they can shoot the three (second best in the NBA) they can defend the three (eighth best in the NBA) and they can play defense (fifth best in the NBA). Their glaring weakness, though, is with their free throw shooting, which is worst in the entire league. That may explain that while they are 16-2 SU in their last 18 they have failed to put games away and have gone 0-3 ATS in their last three and 4-9 ATS over their last 13.
The Hawks are a much more balanced team with five players averaging in double figures and Josh Smith and Al Horford both nearly averaging a double-double with points and rebounds. Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson and Smith also give the Hawks three players with more than 300 assists.
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This will be the third meeting between these two Eastern Conference heavyweights. The first two meetings were part of a home-and-home series on back-to-back nights. In both games Atlanta controlled the game and tempo up until the fourth quarter when two late game collapses cost them. The Cavaliers swept the series thanks in large part to outscoring Atlanta 49-26 in the fourth quarter. LeBron was held in check in the first game but the second game he exploded for 48 points.
The big difference between the two games was getting to the foul line. At home Cleveland went to the charity stripe 38 times compared to Atlanta’s 15 trips. In Atlanta things were a little more even with the Hawks edging the Cavs 26-19 in free throw attempts. This game is in Cleveland and some more home cooking for LeBron and company might be in store.
Cleveland has excelled in these big-time matchups and Friday night should be no different. Cleveland is last in the NBA in free throw shooting but LeBron has shown the ability to get to the line an inordinate amount of times, especially at home. Look for that to be the difference, the pick is Cleveland giving the points.
Utah Jazz (50-26) at Los Angeles Lakers (54-21), 10:30 p.m., ESPN
How They Enter
The Lakers are in the midst of their second worst cold spell of the year. They have dropped three of four games on this road trip and have to be anxious to get back to the Staples Center. This slump is coming off the heels of a seven-game win streak where it looked like the Lakers were going to reestablish themselves as the team to beat in the West. Instead they have continued to struggle against playoff teams, something that has been an issue all season with them.
After storming to the top three of the Western Conference, the Jazz have maintained their positioning by being dominant at home and winning the games they should on the road. Utah enters on a 6-1 SU run but they have not been challenged lately on the road. In their last three road games against teams with a winning record they are 0-3 SU and 0-3 ATS, losing to Phoenix, Oklahoma City and Milwaukee.
The Lakers are the best offensive rebounding team in the NBA. That is a large area of improvement for them and while their three-point shooting is ranked 20th in the league, their three-point shooting defense is best in the league. The big storyline in this stretch of games and in the game against Utah is the status of Andrew Bynum. He is expected to be out until the middle of April with an Achilles injury. Without him the Lakers are 3-3 SU and 2-4 ATS.
These teams have played three times already this season but only once since early December. The Lakers hold a 2-1 advantage over the Jazz, including a win at Utah in their most recent meeting back in February. The Lakers were without Kobe Bryant in that meeting. The Jazz are the one elite team the Lakers have actually had success against.
The Lakers will be glad to be home after a grueling road trip but the transition from the road team to the home team has not been a smooth one for Los Angeles. They are 0-4 ATS in their last four games upon returning home from an extended road trip. Couple that with the Bynum injury, the Lakers drastic struggles against playoff teams and the way the Jazz are surging into April and this one looks like trouble for Kobe and company. The pick is Utah and the points.