(SportsNetwork.com) - The Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers, the two best teams all season in the East, will meet in the conference finals, starting Wednesday with Game 1 at Philips Arena.
The Hawks finished with a franchise-best 60 wins and knocked off the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards en route to a first-ever appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Cleveland swept the Boston Celtics in the opening round, then battled the Chicago Bulls in the semifinals. It's the Cavs first trip this far since 2009.
Everything changed for the Cavaliers when LeBron James announced on July 11 he was coming home.
"I'm just trying to lead these guys," James said after practice on Monday. "I'm just trying to give them the right path. I demand excellence out of every last one of them, including myself. I just want them to be great. I see so much potential."
Injuries have hit the Cavaliers hard during the postseason. Kevin Love was lost for the remainder of the playoffs with a separated shoulder, for which he's already underwent surgery.
All-Star guard Kyrie Irving has two leg issues and sat out the second half of the clinching Game 6 victory over the Bulls. He pronounced himself ready to go Wednesday night.
"I feel great," Irving said after practice on Monday. "You don't want to be on the sideline, especially when you're preparing for a big stage like this. I'm going to go."
Irving's production has declined during the first two series, but that can be blamed on his leg injuries and the fact that James dominates the ball this time of year. Irving has shot 45.7 percent beyond the 3-point arc, which means the Hawks have to address him no matter how hobbled he is
And James has been amazing as always. His numbers across the board have improved from the regular season to the postseason and James-led teams are 5-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Atlanta's success can be attributed, in large part, to Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer. He studied at the foot of Gregg Popovich for years and implemented San Antonio's team-oriented philosophy. It sent four Hawks to the All-Star game.
"You have to recognize that's a team that has five shooters on the floor at all times," said Cleveland coach David Blatt.
Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Al Horford and Paul Millsap have been solid in the playoffs, but the emergence of the fifth starter - DeMarre Carroll - has been a big story.
His scoring is up 5.0 ppg and he's shot almost 44 percent from 3-point land. Carroll rebounds and is a high-energy machine. Carroll will have James, which is manageable since Carroll is a good defender.
The Hawks' heart rates must have been elevated during the series with Washington. Paul Pierce beat them with a last-second shot in Game 3, then Horford put back a layup with under two seconds to win Game 5. Pierce buried a 3-pointer at the end of Game 6 to force overtime, but replays showed the ball on his finger tips and was waived off, allowing Atlanta to advance.
"You move on and realize that there is more work to be done. That's what I did after Game 6 in Washington. It was like, 'man, that's good but we still want more and we are still looking forward to the next round,'" Horford told Sekou Smith of NBA.com.
The Hawks dominated the regular season matchup against the Cavs. Cleveland won at home in November, then lost three straight. The Hawks have won five straight at home over the Cavaliers.
Game 2 will be Friday.