For a bunch that claimed to know little or nothing about the Cleveland Cavaliers late Sunday afternoon, the Hawks studied well. By the time they departed Atlanta for Cleveland on Monday afternoon, they couldn't talk about anything but what a great team the Cavaliers have become.
With just 48 hours to decompress from their first-round Game 7 win over Miami and gear up for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Cavaliers tonight, the Hawks needed to do all the speed-reading they could.
Few teams pose as many threats as the Cavaliers, who boast not only league MVP LeBron James but also Coach of the Year Mike Brown and the best supporting cast any superstar could ask for.
"People called Miami a one-man team because of Dwyane Wade, and they were wrong," Hawks captain Joe Johnson said. "Well, LeBron is the ultimate one-man team if they're talking about a guy that makes his team better and carries them every night with his play. He's the prototype."
While the entire franchise has been rebuilt around the mercurial James, the team has quietly gone about building an ensemble cast.
From All-Star point guard Mo Williams to feisty combo guard Delonte West to veteran center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, James leads a team filled with quality role players and championship-caliber chemistry.
The Cavaliers had the league's best record during the regular season and own home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Unlike their series against Wade and the Heat, the Hawks can't focus solely on trying to slow James and not expect someone else to make them pay for that strategy.
"They've got weapons all over the floor. And LeBron knows it," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. "They've assembled enough shooters around him with Daniel Gibson, Delonte West, Mo, [Wally] Szczerbiak and [Sasha] Pavlovic. . . .
"And they've got plenty of bigs. Ilgauskas causes major problems. And he's kind of been the X-factor when we've played because we haven't had a good matchup for him. Hopefully, Zaza Pachulia can step up and fill that void."
That still leaves James to contend with.
"This is 27 years I've been in this league," Woodson said, "and I've never seen a player ... and I think Michael Jordan was the greatest player to play our game in my time, but I've never seen a player like LeBron. A player that possesses the strength, the athletic ability, the speed and just the know-how to play the game. It's scary, because he's so young."
Hawks guard Flip Murray played 28 games with the Cavaliers three years ago, when James was still filling out his massive 6-foot-8, 260-pound frame. He has seen James evolve from the physical marvel he was then into the force of nature he has become.
But Murray said the biggest improvement in James has come with "his leadership and maturity as a player and his ability to read defensive coverages. . . . He's seeing a lot of double-teams now, so he knows exactly where the double-teams are coming from and where to put the ball when that happens."
Yet, it's not just James, and the Hawks know it, having seen the Cavaliers run roughshod over the entire league this season.
"Mo Williams was basically the [Milwaukee] Bucks' best player when [the Cavs] traded for him," Hawks forward Josh Smith said. "You have a guy like that [who] can be a star on his own team individually and you put him on a team with LeBron, and that makes it that much harder to deal with them. You have Delonte that can take guys off the dribble or shoot the spot-up jumper. . . .
"The depth on that team is going to pose a challenge for us. And we have to be ready to play every second of every possession against a team like that."
NBA playoffs: Hawks vs. Cavaliers