CLEVELAND — For one very brief moment it looked like the Hawks were finally about to get their breakthrough against the Cavaliers. To be sure, for most of the night there was nothing to indicate that this was a likely outcome.
Once again the Cavs had too many shooters, too many playmakers, just too many of everything for the Hawks to deal with every time down the floor. In short, not much had really changed from last year’s conference finals, which the Cavs won in a sweep, or the regular season when they won all three meetings.
Then Dennis Schroder got hot and finally made the Cavs pay for ducking under screens. All those Cleveland scoring options took turns firing up misses. The Hawks closed down the paint, limited second chances and played the game at their pace. It was suddenly there for them, and even the breaks were going their way. And then it wasn’t.
Just when you thought that maybe — just maybe — the Hawks would be able to steal Game 1 of this conference semifinal series it all unraveled the way games between these two teams have tended to unravel the last few years. LeBron James took over, the Cavs gobbled up loose balls and turned them into extra possessions, and the Hawks couldn’t buy a bucket down the stretch after taking a brief lead with about five minutes to play.
The final score — 104-93 — was not particularly close. The box score numbers were not particularly even. None of Atlanta’s stars played exceptionally well. And yet, the overwhelming feeling after Game 1 was that the Hawks let one get away.
Cruel? Yep. Unfair? Perhaps. But that’s what they’re facing in this matchup. They have little margin for error and no room to squander opportunities like the ones that presented themselves down the stretch.
The Cavs, meanwhile, were annoyed at blowing the lead, but pleased with the way they controlled the action for all but those frantic second-half minutes when the Hawks made their run. They were also happy with the way they closed the game and everyone had a hand in it from Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving’s shotmaking to Tristan Thompson’s work on the glass and of course, LeBron who went for 25 points, seven rebounds and nine assists.
“You’ve got to learn from our mistakes that we made tonight,” James said. “The best thing about our team is we will make adjustments going into Game 2. We played an OK game. I don’t think we played to our standards, obviously giving up that lead in the third quarter. The first game is always kind of a feel out.”
There were other takeaways. The Cavs aren’t going to let Kyle Korver get untracked. He took only one shot, an astounding figure given his importance to Atlanta’s offense. With so much attention being paid it was incumbent on the others to do damage. If you’re looking for silver linings from Atlanta’s perspective you could do worse than Schroder’s 27 points or Kent Bazemore’s all-around game (16 points and 12 rebounds).
Their performances, however, were mostly by Cleveland’s design. If Schroder, or Jeff Teague for that matter, are going to make shots then fine. That’s the trade-off. Bazemore is going to get his production through energy and activity. Whatever he gets is a bonus, and he was very good in Game 1.
“It’s a game between the game that people don’t see,” James said. “We have a scouting report and we followed that scouting report for 48 minutes. We are professionals and guys make shots and things happen in the course of the game, which is OK. Schroder hit some big shots. He played exceptionally well.”
In other words, the Cavs will live with it. They have more than enough to counter those outbursts if they can keep Korver, Al Horford and Paul Millsap in check, which they did.
Take Love, for example. He was 1-for-10 at halftime and still finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds. They can absorb that kind of performance when everyone else is rolling. That’s the benefit of having Irving and J.R. Smith shoot 7-for-12 from behind the arc.
“You got to give them credit,” Bazemore said. “They shot the crap out of the ball.”
We all know that playoff series aren’t decided by one game. The Hawks’ mandate coming into Cleveland was to take a game off the Cavs and if they get it on Wednesday then maybe Game 1 will look a lot different in hindsight. They’ve felt all along that they’re a better team right now than they were at this time last year, and they probably are, but they’ve still got to prove it.
“We feel good that we gave ourselves a chance,” the always upbeat Bazemore said. “There’s no moral victories this time of the year but you want to keep your mojo positive.”
In order to avoid a repeat of last year, they’ll need to tap into that positive energy source. Otherwise, this series looks like the same old sad song of regret.