What does the Hawks-Cavaliers series have in common with the Alamo, WWII France and Michael Dukakis in ’88? Each massacre came at the hands of a superior foe, and the same thing happened on Sunday, as the Cavs outshot, outplayed and outclassed the Atlanta Hawks to sweep the Eastern Conference Semis with a hard-fought 100-99 closeout win.
Superior talent doesn’t solve everything (as the Spurs discovered in OKC last night). Good strategy and tactics, as well as execution play a big role. During each of the first two series’ the Cavs responded to opponent runs and didn’t press, but kept to the gameplan and the matchups they were trying to exploit. Those changed somewhat game-to-game, but the Cavaliers continued to take what Atlanta gave them and make good on it.
“We just took what the defense gave us,” Coach Tyronn Lue said afterwards. “If the three point shot was open, we wanted to take it. If not we wanted to drive it to the basket. I thought we did a great job of mixing that up.”
After losing the first two games in Cleveland, the Hawks returned to a tactic they used last season against the Cavs during their final postseason matchup, trapping Kyrie Irving aggressively on the PnR.
Like everyone since about “ever”, the Hawks also tried to coax LeBron James into taking jumpers by sagging hard and loading the lane on his drives (which they also did on Kyrie’s penetration). That required the Cavs’ two best scorers to find other, presumably open, players.
“Our shooting is coming from our ball movement and myself and Kyrie getting downhill,” said James. “We’re attracting, a second guy, and a third guy at times. Out shooters are just locked in and ready. It’s up to us to get the ball into their shooting pocket so they can let it go. Obviously we had some shots that didn’t go in for us, but we had another 20 assists in the game and anytime we do that we put ourselves in a position to succeed.”
The Big Three turned into a game of Three Card Monte where the Hawks had trouble turning over the right card. They weren’t stupid, just outmanned. They took things away from the Cavaliers, who proved to have too many weapons for the Hawks to stop them. (Completely.)
"I’ll just say they are playing at a high level,” Budenholzer said. “We tried to take away significant parts of their team and significant parts of their offense. Our players executed everything we asked of them, I would say at a very high level. At some point, Kevin Love may be an option that they have to get to and he has to make enough shots for four quarters, for four games... It’s really on me at the end of the day. Our players did everything I asked them to do."
It’s easy to miss the fact that the Hawks were pretty successful at what they did. Over the four games the Hawks held the Cavs to 48% shooting in the restricted area (12.5-26.3) and 22% on non-RA paint shots (1.5-6.8). Meanwhile the Hawks shot 61% in the restricted area (16.5-27.3).
It simply wasn’t enough. In the second half, the three-ball abandoned the Cavs, who were 2-13 outside Kevin Love, highlighted by James (1-5), who by now should know better.
Indeed, LeBron nearly cost the Cavs the game with a ridiculously poorly conceived dribble pull-up three leading by one, which he naturally bricked, giving the Hawks in-house “Flash,” Dennis Schroder, a chance to take the lead. Fortunately James was able to get back quickly and ultimately tie Schroder up on the drive. The clock ran out on the jump ball.
“I went for the dagger 3 to put us up four, and I missed it,” said James, who in the on-court postgame interview admitted it was a bad shot. “I knew they had no timeouts so they had to come full court and Schroder did a great job of getting into the paint like he did all season.”
Schroder was a huge thorn in the Cavs side all series, but Atlanta Coach Mike Budenholzer proved a little too oblivious (or loyal to Teague?). In fact, it’s almost inarguably the biggest mistake he made during the series.
Schroder ate the Cavs lunch like he found it in the office frig – with a determined lack of remorse. He averaged 15.3 points/game, 4.8 assists (yes, tho’ 2.8 turnovers) while shooting 50% overall and 47% from beyond the boundary
Anyone care to explain how this guy only saw 20 minutes/game, and just 26 minutes combined in Games 2 & 3, after scoring 27 in Game 1? Kyrie might be one of Kerry King’s guitars the way Schroder shredded him. Lue found himself forced to counter with Matthew Dellavedova, who still had his issues.
“[Schroder] is great attacking the basket and we were trying to take that away as much as we could by going under the screens. But he knocked down shots,” said Delly.
Schroder wasn’t deterred, pressing hard to the hole and finishing the Hawks leading scorer with 21 points in just 26 minutes. He played almost the entire fourth quarter, taking 11 of their 23 shots and scoring 13 of their 22. He was 6-11; everyone else was 4-12.
“He was able to get to the basket a lot tonight, and we didn’t want to help too much and give them open 3s because they were hot early," said Lue.
So it naturally made sense for Budenholzer to go back to Schroder at the end of the game. However on the biggest two plays of the game the 6’1” second year German wasn’t up to the task.
Tristan Thompson blocked his drive on a terrific play his second block of the night and the other way, LeBron hit a jumper to extend the lead to three.
After a timeout, Schroder came right back and scored. LeBron ran the clock down to 14 seconds before his ill-advised three, and the team held on for a hard-fought victory.
As longtime readers probably know, we’ve not been the biggest fans of Tristan Thompson. He plays hard and definitely brings great rebounding and the ability to pick-up guards on the perimeter.
But his offensive deficiencies sometimes makes it difficult on the Cavs, since opponents can help pretty freely off him on the pick-and-roll. Basically he’s not an offensive threat unless underneath the basket, and he’s sketchy trying to dribble or pass. (Not bad, just sketchy.)
Doubters got a good lesson in some of the less noticed things he does when he gathered his second foul with three-and-a-half gone in the first quarter. At the time, the Cavs were up 13-8. After Thompson went to the bench, they were outscored 28-14 the rest of the quarter. Millsap had 15 points in the quarter, as well as 5 rebounds and two assists.
Millsap sat to start the second, and Thompson matched up with him the rest of the way. The Hawk forward only scored four more points, all at the line, going 0-6 with four rebounds, on assist and two turnovers.
“We had to sit Tristan and Millsap kind of hurt us in that first quarter,” said Lue. “We had to go small, and put [Richard Jefferson] on him. We didn’t guard him as good as we wanted to but our guys fought and it’s a tough matchup. Then in the second half I was able to play Tristan like 18 minutes straight to cool Millsap off.”
James and Irving carried the team in the first quarter, accounting for 15 of their 27 points on 6-9 shooting, collectively. The rest of the team was 4-13, though three of those baskets were from behind the arc. Meanwhile, the Hawks finished the first quarter 6-11 from 3, and 13-22 overall (59%).
Cavs had some issues with defensive intensity and execution early, though some of it was also the Hawks coming out hungry, hoping to stave off a sweep.
“It was a little bit of both. Sometimes, guys are good players; they’re going to knock down shots. You definitely want to make it as difficult as possible,” said Delly. “The closeout games are the hardest one to win. They’re a good team, and had a good year. We knew they were going to come in with a lot of fire.”
For Lue it was by-and-large a matter of making sure the right guys take threes. They wanted to stop Korver and Millsap, but were willing to give them to other guys like Kris Humphries, Kent Bazemore, Al Horford and Thabo Sefolosha. Sefolosha, in particular, played like a star, finishing with 16 points, six boards, three offensive, three assists, two steals and a block.) The other four Hawks starters 4-19 from three, and after that first quarter, the Hawks were 3-20 from distance.
“The guys that shot the ball, we wanted to shoot the [three] ball. We just tried to do a good job on Korver and he didn’t have any threes tonight so that was big for us, just trying to contain him,” Lue said. “They came out early and made some shots. Sefolosha made some shots and Bazemore. So you have t o give credit to those guys for playing well.”
After falling behind 36-27 at the end of one, Cleveland closed the lead at the half to 58-56. The Hawks still shot well (53%), but the Cavs forced seven turnovers which they turned into 8 points. The Hawks shot 56% in the first half, but the Cavaliers shot a respectable 48%, including 10-16 from 3 (63%). (They were 6-22 in the second half.)
Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert played almost the entire second quarter putting up 24 of the Cavs 29 points. Shumpert in particular was spectacular in the quarter. He hit his only two shots – both threes – and a couple free throws for eight points and two steals, including this beauty below for a fastbreak and a foul.
“I thought his defensive intensity in the first half really gave us a spark and got us back in the game,” said Lue. “His play really turned things around for us when he got in the game and then he made two big threes to really uplift us offensively.”
Shumpert even initiated the offense a couple times down the floor, allowing Kyrie to play off the ball and not have to beat trapping pick-and-roll defenders.
After starting off poorly, Kevin Love (1-6, 1 rebound in first quarter) got ridiculous hot from long range in the middle quarters. He and Kyrie almost singlehandedly carried the team. Love had 24 in the second and third, Kyrie had 12. They almost outscored the Hawks alone (41 points).
Trailing in the third quarter by six after a Sefolosha pull-up jumper, the Cavs rallied behind James and Love. After James measured a three, Kevin Love nailed three straight threes and a jumper to spark a 14-4 that the Cavs a four-point lead.
If you watch, you’ll notice most times the action included a screen on LeBron by Kyrie Irving that completely bamboozles the Hawks defense, leaving Love wide-open. In those middle quarters Love made 7-12 from 3 and 8-15 overall for 24 points, 10 rebounds (including three offensive) and three assists.
“It was kind of great how it happened,” said Irving. “The pace slowly starts to pick up in the third quarter. We were getting downhill, myself and LeBron, and our aggressiveness was there and we just started to see something that kind of unraveled with their defense. I came down and it kind was spur of the moment I ran double drag with Kev. I don’t think they prepared for something like that where I’m screening and he’s screening and he’s popping and I’m rolling. We came to a timeout and discussed it and kept going to it, and it worked.”
It was a big moment for Love because in the past, a 1-6 start like he had in the first would be reason not to go back to him, and find something else. But over the last two or so months Love has gotten much more aggressive in demanding the ball and taking shots, even if it’s not falling.
Lue recalled getting on Love after the March 24th loss to Brooklyn, which was sort of the logical outgrowth of Lue’s decision to make Love a more featured part of the offense than he was under former Coach David Blatt.
“We know we wanted to make Kevin more comfortable by playing him at the elbow and posting him a lot more, and we talked to him, but I think it really hit home after the Brooklyn loss and then we played the Knicks,” said Lue. “We sat down with him and talked to the team also, and said that ‘You’re a top ten player in this league, so play like it, demand the ball and be aggressive.’ After that talk he’s been phenomenal.”
With the scored tied at 75, Love made a terrific three with a guy flying by him, then coming back after the head fake and fouling him, for the four-point play.
Then Love returned to earth, missing 4 shots in six minutes in the fourth quarter. In one of the playoffs’ more interesting oddities, Kevin Love is shooting 10-41 (24%) inside 10’ while shooting 28-63 (44%) from beyond the arc.
But it wasn’t just Love. The whole squad had trouble. Only Channing Frye (2-3) and James (3-9) made more than one basket as the team shot 9-23 in the fourth. (Strangely, neither team shot a free throw in the final period.) But the Cavaliers held on for the victory.
Right Here, Right Now
After waiting all season to play the way we believed they were capable, the Cavs are peaking at the right time. It certainly doesn’t hurt that by the time the next series starts, they’ll have played eight games in 30 days.
That should be more than enough time for LeBron to re-energize Beast Mode, which we really have still yet to see from him except in brief spurts. (Indeed, last night his attempts to take over were a tad out of control, contributing to James’ six turnovers.)
“The rigors of the season make it very difficult to lock down on the things you have to do to be successful against a given opponent,” said James Jones. “So the extra downtime gave us time to strategize and review and prep and scout and we’ve done a great job of taking that practice and film room work to the floor.”
Richard Jefferson also pointed to the high level of discontinuity during the season as an obstacle to the Wine and Gold finding their way before this.
“We had a trade, we had a coaching change. Kyrie missed the first 25 games and was under a minutes restriction. Shump missed the first 20 games,” said Jefferson. “So when you look at it as a group, we didn’t have our whole unit, and it was a little bit of a process and we were still able to win 55 game – more than last year. I think if we’re healthy all year – which is a big deal for every team in this league – I think we’re up there in the 60s. We didn’t worry too much about it, but that being said, it’s good to be playing good basketball right now.”
This team right now is playing at a terrific clip. They’re second in the postseason in assists (behind Golden State), and are shooting 46.2% on threes – even better than they did on twos. And until the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game, they had as many threes as twos against the Hawks, finishing with 81 twos and 77 threes. They have the postseason’s highest offensive efficiency (117 points/100 possessions, more than five points better than Golden State).
A big part of that has been Lue’s ability to respond tactically to what’s going on in the game and – so far – make the right adjustments. Some credit apparently should go to Coach Blatt as well, according to Lue, for the offensive sets, a nice touch for the guy who got the lion’s share of credit for the team’s defense the last two years.
“A lot of our movement and motion sets came from Coach Blatt. We put them in and some things we did early in the season that we didn’t do last year because we thought we were stagnant a lot playing a lot of one-on-one, ISO basketball,” said Lue, who actually got them to start doing it. “So coming into this year we put in a lot of movement stuff and a lot of that stuff we’re doing now Coach Blatt came in and implemented.”
But the game is more than just installing sets. It’s knowing when to run them. Jefferson feels that’s a place where the Cavaliers are excelling, in noting how they found Love when he was scorching.
“We understand and we go with something when it’s hot – it doesn’t mean we’re going to depend on it. We have too many guys that can do too many things,” he said. “We have multiple guys who can do multiple things that’s why it’s difficult [to defend us]. It’s not just like keying in on a three point shooter and running them off the line [“Kyle Korver, red courtesy phone!”], because then you have another set of problems.”
The Cavaliers played like the team James said after Friday’s game was “destined for greatness.” We heard some analysts pooh-pooh their performance a little, suggesting it would be hard to keep shooting that will from three, where they’ve set a shopping cart of records. But that’s ignoring the fact that these threes aren’t necessarily who the Cavaliers are, they’re just taking what the Hawks offer.
It’s Wack-A-Mole only Atlanta didn’t have enough arms or mallets.
Going forward we expect to see more teams attempt to take the Cavs out of their offense by trapping Kyrie and helping aggressively off Tristan Thompson (which as Jefferson notes opens up other things, though perhaps lower efficiency things, at least that’s the opponents’ hope).
The Hawks shadowed J.R. Smith aggressively and he took only four shots all game, making but one. We know J.R. only needs a sliver of daylight, so the Hawks deserve some credit. But it still wasn’t enough. We expect the next foe to try the same thing, and also to attempt to get Tristan Thompson in foul trouble. Frye is a good player, but not good enough defensively to be taking so many of Tristan’s minutes.
That said, Frye was much better than Thompson in Game 3, which probably led to the Hawks being more aggressive on him as well, though we didn’t necessarily notice it during the game play. Again, this team has found different people to step up almost every game, and that’s a great sign.
“We’re growing. We still have a lot of work and a lot of growth, we have a long way to go. We’re still chasing that elusive 48 minutes of basketball where we control and dominate every facet of the game,” Jones said. “I think our spirits are high and well because winning does that to you. But also because we’re very clear in our mission, and in what our goals are and what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re executing well and we’re upholding our end of the bargain.”
We’re not sure when the next game will be, though we’ve read it's Tuesday, May 17th. We believe that could be moved up if the Raptors/Heat series finishes early. Whenever it is, we’ll be there, posting video, analysis and snark. You can follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne.