Hawks short on answers for LeBron
CLEVELAND – Two things were clear after the Cleveland Cavaliers put together another blowout victory Tuesday night.
One, there is no such thing as rust for LeBron James(notes). And, two, the Atlanta Hawks better come up with a better way to deal with No. 1 or this Eastern Conference semifinal could be a much shorter series than the one they just survived with the Miami Heat.
In the opening possession of the Cavs’ 99-72 victory – their fifth straight in the playoffs by double digits – James slipped past defender Maurice Evans(notes) and quickly surveyed the scene. He saw the basket with no Hawk in sight and he had just one thing on his mind.
“Once I saw nobody coming across, I wanted to get the crowd hyped and myself involved and be aggressive,” said James, who ended up with 34 points, 10 rebounds and four steals. “That’s just the type of player I am.”
Less than 10 minutes earlier, James was standing at center court at Quicken Loans Arena, accepting the Maurice Podoloff Trophy from David Stern as the NBA’s newest MVP. The ovation was so deafening it was nearly impossible for James to be heard over the loudspeakers, and in the moment, he looked surprisingly sheepish, an emotion he almost never exudes.
All this plus James hadn’t played a game in nine days, the second-longest layoff in his NBA career behind missing five games last season with a hand injury. It would seem like that could present a problem.
Until, that is, he turned the corner, saw an open basket and exploded to the rim, violently shaking the basket standard. The loudspeaker was useless again as the crowd that has seen the Cavs win 42 of 44 games on their home floor this season swallowed the announcement of the game’s first two points.
Despite their impressive display in Game 1 and their impressive showing since the All-Star break (they are now 31-5), the Cavs needed it against the playoff-weary Hawks. Having some defensive trouble, especially on Josh Smith(notes), the Cavs were down seven points fast and the Hawks were gaining steam.
Until James made his next four shots, scored 16 points in the first quarter and got the Cavs the lead for good. That allowed the rest of the team, which was actually playing with some tension and general sloppiness as one would expect after such downtime, time to get the blood going. And when the Cavs did it was over.
“I wanted to be more aggressive knowing the time we had off,” James said. “I just wanted to take what the defense was giving me.”
Which brings up the Hawks’ major issue. Their approach to dealing with James on Tuesday was downright disastrous and coach Mike Woodson may have to seriously think over revisions.
It was not a sin to give up 34 points to James, after all he’s leading everyone with a 32.4 scoring average in the postseason. It was the way the Hawks gave them up.
In the first round against Dwyane Wade(notes), the Hawks decided they weren’t going to junk up their defense to deal with the NBA’s leading scorer. They were going to play him one-on-one and have defenders take him in shifts to lessen the load. Then they would rely on the versatility of their defenders – the Hawks are one of the few teams that can switch on all pick-and-rolls because of their general athleticism and like-sized starters – and shot blockers Al Horford(notes) and Smith as the second line of defense.
Wade had his way for the most part, averaging 28.8 points, but the rest of the team couldn’t constantly support him. Especially when 3-pointers weren’t falling. The result was less than 90 points a game and ultimately a series win for the Hawks.
Atlanta appeared to bring the same idea to the table with James. But if containment was the goal it was a definite miss. Granted James has seen about every defense possible and has corresponding countermeasures that have varying track records. Making him take jumpers is the most prudent bet, though he’s a classic “pick-your-poison” player and nothing is fool proof.
But one thing that is clear on the scouting report is James cannot be allowed to turn the corner. When he’s moving at high speed with his size there is no stopping him unless Dwight Howard(notes), Yao Ming(notes) or a young Shaquille O’Neal(notes) are protecting the rim. Even then, James is going to have his moment.
The reason is he can score with both hands because he’s naturally ambidextrous – he’s left-handed but plays basketball right-handed – so there is no advantage to forcing him one way or another. Once in Game 1 he soared over two back-pedaling Hawks and banked in a left-handed hook at full speed. And it wouldn’t have made his top 10 highlights on the night.
Yet time and time again, he turned that corner because the Hawks applied no double teams and gave him space coming off pick-and-rolls. So he would square his shoulders with the hoop and zip to the rim and finish with power, draw a foul or find a teammate. Only he didn’t have to look for teammates all that much because the pickings were so abundant.
Perhaps if Horford, who is dealing with a sprained ankle, was 100 percent it would be different. But James just bounded in between defenders, weaving his away through the lane like an experienced cab driver in rush hour. He didn’t have a single assist in the first half, which is rare considering he was ninth in the NBA in assists. He wasn’t hogging the ball, he just kept “taking what the defense gave him.”
By the time the Hawks made adjustments and started having their big men step up to block James’ path coming off screens late in the third quarter it was too late. James’ teammates had awoken and he started feeding them. Mo Williams(notes) hit four 3-pointers and finished with 21 points. Delonte West(notes) scored 13 points and the bench added 20 more.
With the Cavs’ defense as strong as it usually is at home – they allowed just 28 points and 30 percent shooting in the second half – you can understand why it was a blowout.
And why the Hawks, who saw their star Joe Johnson(notes) manage just 11 points on admittedly tired legs that have played more minutes than any other player in the league this season, probably need to go back to the drawing board.
“That’s why he’s the MVP,” Woodson said of James. “He definitely deserved that honor and played like it all season.”