LeBron James and the Rodney Dangerfields did it again. The team that’s won “in spite of” its coach, David Blatt, according to one USA Today hack, continued their 9-2 roll through the playoffs into a stiff headwind of media blowhards. Looking every bit the “team” they bill themselves as, the Cavaliers took control of the series and the Atlanta Hawks, 97-89, in Atlanta last night.
For a club that had the best record in basketball after James’ return from back and knee injuries in mid-January, it’s hard for anyone to get much credit besides James. Even when injury struck Kyrie Irving – reduced to a quarter of his former self with knee, foot and hip injuries – no credit flowed downward to the staff that prepared the Cavaliers to play without major contributions from the team’s second-leading scorer.
Clearly many local beat reporters don’t have much respect for the home team coach. On the eve of the team’s biggest game in six years, one sought out the worst GM in the last quarter-century to get his Hot Take on Coach Blatt.
Isiah Thomas was a great point guard, but as a coach lost in the first round three times, sandwiched around NBA Finals and Conference Finals appearance by his predecessor and successor. Later as a general manager, Thomas turned the proud Knicks into a smoking slag heap. This is the (negative, naturally) opinion the local guys seek out? What, still-searching coaching candidate/announcer Mark Jackson wasn’t available?
Ever since the media first turned on the Cavs as they fell below .500 near the halfway mark in the season, they’ve seemed to close ranks and sharpen focus ahead of the sharpened knives. The putative favorites until Kevin Love’s injury, they were dismissed yet again, only to prove themselves with three straight victories over the Bulls after J.R. Smith’s return from suspension.
Last night they did it again, the same way they have all season – using whatever tools available and playing the type of tight team defense they’ve demonstrated since Love’s injury forced a refocus. Not that the Cavaliers weren’t focused on defense, but their inability to easily replace even a fraction of Love’s offense threat led them to double down on the defensive end with more minutes going to significantly better defensive players Thompson and Shumpert.
That work was borne out by the performances last night. For some reason the Cavs like to increase the difficulty of their endeavors by not showing up for the first six minutes of the game. Last night they were down by eight, 20-12, with 4:30 left in the first quarter.
They crushed the Hawks from that point until J.R. Smith hit his eighth three with nine minutes to go in the fourth. Over the next 32 minutes the Cavaliers outscored the Hawks 73-49, shot 51% to the Hawks 38%, and outrebounded them 34-22, as well as beating them on turnovers (7 to 10) and assists (16 to 9). This was such a thorough domination on the Hawks home floor, it causes pause.
While the Cavaliers answered numerous questions about the team’s lack of playoff experience, the more salient question seems the Hawks’ lack of high level playoff experience. This is a team that’s been eliminated in the first round the last three years, and which has never advanced to the third round in the team’s history. (Nor have any of its players.)
It was the Hawks, not the Cavaliers that got shit stuck in their throat on the big stage.
Though the Hawks saw more open shots (37 of 77 versus 29 of 84) they hit less, shooting only 35%, though they did make more than half their contested jumpers. The Cavs only made 47%, but thanks to offensive rebounds overall took more shots.
While writers in Akron and Cleveland may find praising Blatt a difficult task (when not genuflecting before the King) James had no trouble at all, crediting the staff’s intense film work for the defensive execution.
“We have a great coaching staff, first of all, that gives us a game plan,” said James in the post-game presser, noting the Hawks’ 4-23 (17%) 3-pointshooting. “Throughout these six days, we've kind of been balancing ways we can try to, not stop what they do, but just try to limit some of their touches, limit some of Kyle Korver's touches and some of their other three point shooters.
“We're the number one defensive team in the playoffs,” he continued. “It has a lot to do with when we go out, as a coaching staff, they give us the game plan, and for us as players, we go out and execute it. For us to win ultimately, we have to defend.” (None of the Plain Dealer guys used the quote, but the same fellow who ran the Thomas hit-piece did.)
Though James, with 31 points, eight boards and six assists, and Smith, with 28 points, eight boards and three assists, paced the team, they got contributions up and down the lineup. Five guys made it into double figures, and each seemed to provide something at different points in the game.
Even Kyrie Irving helped, nailing a couple catch & shoot threes in the first part of the first quarter, to keep the team afloat while the team tried to get locked in. He’d only make two more baskets the rest of the way, and wound up playing but 27 minutes (with six assists!). He appeared limited defensively and the Hawks tried to take advantage.
Irving apparently may have reinjured himself slightly or otherwise got nicked up, according to Blatt, though Kyrie’s offensive and defensive ineffectiveness probably also played a role. “He got banged up a little bit, and we limited his minutes as a result,” said Blatt after the game.
Aside from Irving, the other thing keeping the Cavs in the game early on was their rebounding. They grabbed 7 of their 12 offensive boards in the first quarter, preventing the Hawks from jumping out to too much of a lead. Indeed from the second quarter on the Cavs’ rebounding edge shrunk to 35-31, and the Hawks actually had two more offensive rebounds than the Cavs.
In the first, the Cavaliers showed a desire to hurt the Hawks with their size, repeatedly finding him and Thompson on cuts and pick and roll (PnR) action, or posting the two up to take advantage of their size advantage over Hawks center Al Horford and power forward Paul Milsap.
LeBron, who only took three shots in the first, took control in the second quarter. He scored 14 points on 7-9 shooting repeatedly driving and taking advantage of PNR switches off Kryie Irving that put the Hawks’ Jeff Teague on him. He typically went quickly reducing the ability of the Hawks to double him,
He was able to back the Hawks down, who packed the lane expecting James to try to finish at rim. Instead he took a series of short floaters, half-hooks and short jumpers from lane to confound the Hawks in the second quarter.
The Hawks started to pinch the lane following the inside work of Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov. This left the arc uncovered and Smith made the Hawks pay in the second quarter, here on a feed from Dellavedova. Note that the Hawks’ Demarre Carroll in upper right is just playing LeBron, not even watching the play.
Later, LeBron would have success penetrating and finding Smith for catch & shoot 3s or spotting him in transition. Here LeBron makes the Hawks defense collapse and Smith drains it.
The third is the period for coaches’ adjustments as they adapt to what their other number did. Blatt decidedly beat Budenholzer in this regard, thanks in part to the higher intensity of the Cavaliers on the defensive end.
While the Cavs were 8-21 in the quarter, the Hawks were an even worse 5-18, hurt by five turnovers, two of them on LeBron steals. James was only 1-5 in the quarter as the Hawks adjusted to his drives and he started finding others.
The third was a tough slog offensively for Cavs after Hawks took away James. Irving got two hoops and Smith had thee baskets, two for three. Nobody else scored more than one basket.
Meanwhile the Hawks were having their own issues as it appeared the Cavaliers were willing to let Teague beat them but not anyone else. To that end they held the Hawks frontcourt (Horford, Milsap, Carroll) to 1-8 and forced 3 Milsap turnovers. Kent Bazemore and Jeff Teague accounted for half the Hawks 16 third quarter points.
Then Smith took over the fourth scoring four times for 11 points in the first 4 minutes of the fourth, outscoring the Hawks by 4 and staking the Cavs to a 15 point lead. LeBron carried the Cavs the rest of the way scoring 9 of the team’s final 12 points, though not without a lot of isolation and ball-stalling play of the type we wrote about last week.
The Hawks got it back to four after a few of these head-scratching plays but when it came down to it, LeBron beat Paul Milsap, who picked him up FAR from the basket and he drove down the lane unimpeded for a demonstrative slam.
He was apologetic about it in the postgame presser showing the kind of awareness you’d wish he demonstrated during the game. This stalling, rock pounding, movement-killing type of play has been a staple of James’ play particularly in the fourth quarter, and he acknowledged it’s not good basketball.
“It starts with me. I take all the responsibility for it,” James said. “In the fourth quarter, I played way too much isolation basketball, one-on-one basketball, let the defenses set, and I was letting the clock run down way too much. I just had to take the shot or I was giving it to my guys late in the shot clock, and they couldn't do nothing with it besides shoot it or turn the ball over. “
Jason Lloyd followed up asking if LeBron was aware of it when it is happening.
“I sense it during the game a little bit, and it's tough sometimes with our main ball handler not being on the floor,” he said referring to Kyrie. “I don't like to play that much isolation basketball late in the game. I'd much rather get the ball moving from side to side and get a good look after that. So like I said, I'll be more conscious about that in Game 2, if that opportunity presents itself, where at least I can get the ball moving to start and then maybe at the back side, or like the third option I can get it back at the end. At least we got the defense moving instead of them just watching me pound the ball for 24 seconds. That's not good basketball.”
Whether LeBron actually does this is an open question, but admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.
Speaking of recovery, the Hawks are going to need to gut up in a serious way if they hope to salvage this series. The way they looked during the game it hardly seemed a done deal. The fact that DeMarre Carroll went down with a sprained knee in the third quarter would seem to make it especially hard on the Hawks. He’ll have an MRI later today.
Obvious going down 2-0 coming back to Cleveland would pretty much be a death sentence for the Hawks, barring a major Cavaliers injury. So we can expect them to come out and play even harder on Friday, their backs against the wall.
However, they didn’t look particularly fluid on offense, and missed a lot of shots. While they seemed to clear up the first quarter rebounding issues they still didn’t seem to have an answer to the Cavs’ drive and kicks – when they made the shots. This is a team that hasn’t made it past the first round in the last three years – do they have the mental toughness to come back?
We think they can do it, especially after seeing Irving contribute very little on offense and having trouble on defense. But the Cavs KNOW if they win the next game the series is all but decided. We wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cavs come out for Game 2 with the same level of fight they brought the Bulls in Game 6.
This is a fine fine team. The fact that they could suffer the injuries they have and still be as dominant as they’ve looked is not a testament ONLY to LeBron James. We feel the team – who’s defense is now #1 in the playoffs in efficiency – and the coaches that put them in this position despite being overmatched talent-wise (at least according to the bloviators), are constantly being underrated.
We’re sure they don’t care. To quote that gawdawful song, “Don’t believe me, just watch.”
We’re in Atlanta for the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals. We’ll be at the game on Friday, live tweeting and posting video when possible. (The broadband at Phillips Arena sucks.) In the meantime we’ll be counting the hours until local beats find some love for the team’s titular leader (other than James).