LeBron James capped his postgame interview with TNT’s Lewis Johnson with seven simple words: “All right, I’m going to lay down.” He’d earned the rest, but that he’d needed to expend so much energy late despite his team holding an 18-point third-quarter lead suggests that these Atlanta Hawks aren’t interested in a second straight meek postseason exit at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
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The four-time NBA Most Valuable Player checked just about every box on Monday, finishing with 25 points on 11-for-21 shooting, nine assists, seven rebounds and five steals in 40 1/2 minutes to lead the Cavs to a 104-93 win that gives Cleveland a 1-0 lead over visiting Atlanta in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Kyrie Irving added 21 points on 8-for-18 shooting, eight assists, two blocks and a steal against just two turnovers in the win. Power forward Kevin Love, who watched last year’s Eastern Conference finals matchup between these two teams in a suit after suffering a shoulder injury earlier in the postseason, spaced the floor, banged bodies and fought on the boards, working through a dismal 4-for-17 shooting night to finish with 17 points and 11 rebounds.
While the Cavs’ other two stars each made an impact — as did glass-eating center Tristan Thompson, designated gunner J.R. Smith, and veteran reserves Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye — it was James who led the way.
With his pinpoint fastball passing to keep the ball flying around the perimeter ahead of the Hawks’ defensive rotations, and his persistent attacking of the smaller Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha, James helped the Cavs take control early and maintain it for the bulk of the first three quarters. But after Atlanta roared back with a 16-4 run to close the third, took the lead with eight minutes to go in regulation, and stood tied with the East’s top seed midway through the fourth, James took the reins.
He set up Smith, curling clean off a Love off-ball screen, for a huge go-ahead 3 with four minutes left. With the help of an Irving screen, he got a step on Paul Millsap and drove baseline, drawing the attention of three Hawks to open up a pass to the corner for Love, who’d pump-fake Bazemore into the air, draw a foul and get himself to the line for three big free throws, making two. He came up with a pair of critical steals to short-circuit the Hawks offense; finished a tough and-one layup to put Cleveland up seven; spun around Al Horford for another layup to increase the lead to nine; and cleaned the defensive glass after a Hawks quick-two attempt with just under a minute left that forced Atlanta to foul, putting Kyrie Irving on the line and essentially icing the game.
After having been largely quiet since the midpoint of the third as the Hawks made a game of it, James provided whatever Cleveland needed in the final 6 1/2 minutes, pushing the Cavs past the finish line to their fifth straight win of this postseason and their eighth straight win over Atlanta, dating back to last year’s conference finals sweep.
“I had a couple of turnovers that led to some of their runs, and I just had to make some plays for my team,” James said after the game. “They look at me to lead this team every single night, and I was able to get a couple of looks.”
The Cavs needed those looks, because Atlanta fought back from an awful offensive start to push Cleveland late.
As was the case for much of their first-round win over the Boston Celtics, the Hawks struggled to both generate good looks and cash in on the ones they got, shooting just 8-for-24 in the first quarter and 14-for-47 in the first half, with All-Stars Millsap and Horford combining to go just 2-for-16 before intermission.
Some of Atlanta’s issues stemmed from solid Cavalier defense. Thompson, the 2015 Hawks’ postseason bete noire, once again caused problems with his interior activity, and committed ball-denial effort by the likes of Smith and Iman Shumpert helped limit Kyle Korver to just one field-goal attempt … and even that was a rushed attempt off a pump fake with less than two minutes left in the second quarter, and he missed it.
Some of the woes, however, could be chalked up to the Hawks once again missing makeable looks. Atlanta shot just 18-for-48 on field-goal tries on which no defender was within 3 1/2 feet of the shooter, according to NBA.com’s SportVU player tracking data.
And yet, the Hawks went into half down just 10, thanks in part to a hot shooting start from Bazemore and a stellar second quarter from reserve point guard Dennis Schröder, who made a lot of enemies in Massachusetts with his Round 1 work against the Celtics, and who seemed very eager to open Round 2 by proving nobody in a Cavalier jersey could stay in front of him off the bounce:
Schröder scored 10 points in the second quarter to keep Atlanta afloat, and he took over the game in the final five minutes of the third. He stepped into 3-point shots with confidence, intent on making Cleveland pay for its tried-and-true strategy of ducking under high ball screens against the Hawks, sagging off to prevent the drive and baiting Atlanta’s playmakers into pulling the trigger from beyond the arc. After he made a couple, the defense tightened up, and the German jitterbug didn’t need an engraved invitation to start carving a path to the rim, especially when matched up with Irving and given the opportunity to attack the slow-footed Love in the pick-and-roll.
With Schröder at the wheel, the Hawks cut an 18-point deficit down to just four entering the fourth quarter. After Cleveland opened the fourth with five straight points, Schröder — plus some exceptionally committed defense from Horford and Millsap, who continued to swarm, cover ground and protect the rim despite having a hard time putting the ball in the hole — kept attacking and pushing, lofting a beautiful lob for a Horford dunk that gave Atlanta its first lead of the game, 80-79, with eight minutes to go. Irving responded with three straight baskets — a triple, a driving layup and a pullup jumper — to showcase his all-around scoring gifts, but Schröder didn’t blink, knifing through the Cavs’ defense for a pair of layups of his own to knot the score at 86 with 6:29 remaining.
From there, though, the Hawks’ attack bogged down, coming up empty on eight of their next nine trips thanks partly to tighter Cavalier defense and partly to ill-timed errors, including four critical turnovers in the final 6 1/2 minutes leading to five Cleveland points. That, combined with James’ orchestration on the other end, was enough to give the Cavs the kick they needed to get back to their winning ways following an eight-day layoff after sweeping the Detroit Pistons in the first round.
“Obviously, you can tell that [Atlanta] went through a longer series than us — eight [days] is a long time, but we tried to do whatever we could to stay in rhythm, to stay in shape, but we just pushed through it,” James said after the game. “A win is a win in the postseason. We’re going to get better, obviously, as the series go on, but it’s a great start to the series.”
If you’re a glass-half-full sort, you could say the same thing for the Hawks, who put themselves in the position to be in hailing distance down the stretch despite getting just three points in 37 minutes from Korver and watching key offensive contributors Millsap, Horford and Teague combine for just 35 points on 12-for-41 shooting.
Atlanta battled on the glass, showed improved defensive effort as the game went on, and put real pressure on the Cavaliers in the second half, especially with Schröder working against Irving and Love in the screen game on his way to a career playoff high 27 points on 10-for-20 shooting, including a 5-for-10 mark from 3-point land, to go with six assists and three rebounds in 28 1/2 minutes.
Some of Budenholzer’s lineup gambits, such as switching assignments to put Bazemore on Love to put more size on James late, could pay greater dividends moving forward, especially if Love’s not as physically able to punish a smaller defender as he might usually be. Love took his lumps late, grimacing in pain and grabbing his right shoulder after a shooting foul by Bazemore, before later coming up limping after landing awkwardly following an attempt for a contested rebound:
A glass-half-empty Georgian might wonder how likely it is that Schröder will replicate that shooting performance. Or express skepticism that Bazemore’s going to keep putting up 16 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two steals while spending most of his time guarding James. Or wonder when exactly we’re going to see Horford start consistently bossing dudes around on the offensive end. Or note that Atlanta’s season-long inability to clear the defensive glass once again came back to bite them in the closing minutes, with both Thompson and Smith grabbing offensive rebounds to extend a Cleveland possession with the Hawks down four, leading to the LeBron and-one that served as the ostensible game-winner.
“Defensively, we had some possessions where we gave ourselves a chance [but] we just couldn’t come up with a couple of rebounds late when it was tied,” Budenholzer said after the game, according to Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We get a couple more of those rebounds and execute on the other end. For a Game 1, we’ll learn a lot and we’ll be better going forward on both ends.”
They’ll need to be, because if the last decade or so of Eastern Conference basketball has taught us anything, it’s that close just isn’t close enough when the other guys have LeBron James.