Most players would be really, really happy after scoring 31 points, grabbing eight rebounds and dishing six assists in a series-opening road win that stole home-court advantage in the conference finals. But LeBron James, as you might have heard, is not most players.
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“In the fourth quarter, I played way too much isolation basketball, one-on-one basketball [with] a lot of the defenses set, and I was letting the clock run down way too much," James said after Game 1, according to Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com. "[...] “I’ll be more conscious about that in Game 2 if that opportunity presents itself."
The opportunity presented itself early and often on Friday. James brilliantly balanced the responsibilities of acting as both Cleveland's top scoring threat and its primary facilitator with All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving sidelined by left knee tendinitis, scoring 30 points on 10-for-22 shooting, serving up 11 assists and grabbing nine rebounds as the Cavaliers dominated the Hawks by a looks-closer-than-it-was score of 94-82 to sweep their visit to Philips Arena and take a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals back home to Ohio.
And we mean, like, really commanding:
Teams in NBA history to go up 2-0 in a best-of-7 series have gone on to win 94% of time. That bodes well for Cavs. pic.twitter.com/83uCPqjnAK— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) May 23, 2015
Of the 30 teams to begin an NBA best-of-seven series on the road and go up 2-0: 27 won the series, including 12 by sweep.— Dan Feldman (@DanFeldmanNBA) May 23, 2015
Eight of James' 11 assists produced 3-pointers, helping fuel a long-range assault that saw the Cavaliers shoot 12-for-30 from long distance, with complementary wings Iman Shumpert and James Jones combining for seven long-range makes in 11 attempts after missing all six of their triple tries in Game 1. (A ninth would have generated the extra point, had stand-in starting point guard Matthew Dellavedova taken one more step backward.)
Two more created dunks, with the first coming after collapsing the Atlanta defense and rewarding center Timofey Mozgov for hustling down court and lurking along the baseline:
... and the second coming on an alley-oop feed to power forward Tristan Thompson, rewarding him for his ongoing domination of the Hawks on the glass (16 rebounds, five on the offensive boards) and even on the defensive end (this was not a foul, Kent Bazemore, and you know it):
That's 60 of Cleveland's 94 points coming directly off a James basket or helper. And when you factor in the way his dominance distorted the Atlanta defense, forcing defensive help that creates openings two passes down the line, his impact was even greater.
It was James' 74th career 30-plus-point playoff game, tying the great Jerry West for the fourth-most in NBA history and one shy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was his 53rd career playoff game with at least 30 points, five rebounds and five assists, extending his NBA record.
And yet, despite the remarkable individual effort and tour de force performance for the Cavs' lone remaining All-Star, the win was also about Cleveland's role players. At times, it called to mind some of James' days with the Miami Heat, the ones where it wasn't the Big Three of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh laying waste to the opposition, but rather misfit-toy lineups featuring James flanked by multiple shooters and one board-crashing, rim-protecting, lob-finishing big man (Chris "Birdman" Andersen then, Thompson now).
It was about Thompson proving time and again that the Hawks, like the Chicago Bulls, absolutely cannot keep him off the boards, and that rebounding is the kind of thing that it's easy to overlook until the other guy can do it and you can't. It was about Shumpert popping for 16 points on 6-for-11 shooting while continuing to make life difficult for Hawks sharpshooter Kyle Korver.
It was about Jones, the 34-year-old veteran who followed James north from Miami and whom LeBron trusts implicitly in these sorts of situations, knocking down three of his five triples. It was about Dellavedova shaking off a stumbling start in place of Irving to chip in 11 points, six rebounds, four assists and a steal in 37 minutes of work.
It was about the Cavaliers as a unit short-circuiting the Hawks' vaunted offense, continuing to redeem their 20th-out-of-30 regular-season ranking in points allowed per possession with activity, hard work, adherence to a smart game-plan and, perhaps above all else, communication.
"Communication is what holds everything together," James told TNT's Rachel Nichols after the game. "Me being the leader of the team, I have to communicate throughout the game — through the good, through the bad, no matter what's going on. My guys came to play for me tonight, and that's why we was able to get a win."
Shumpert kept chasing the regular season's leading 3-point shooter everywhere he went off the ball, limiting Korver to 12 points on 4-for-11 shooting, with just three shots and two points coming after the first quarter. The Cavs' wings repeatedly went under ball screens, plugging up the interior against All-Stars Al Horford, who didn't attempt a shot for the first 16 minutes of game time, and Paul Millsap, who managed just four points on 2-for-8 shooting. In so doing, they dared the Hawks' point guards to beat them, and watched an uncomfortable Jeff Teague (12 points on 5-for-16 shooting, six assists) and an often-too-comfortable-for-his-own-good Dennis Schröder (13 points on 6-for-11 shooting) prove unable to do it.
"Collective team effort on both ends of the floor, especially defensively," James told Nichols. "That's where we hang our hat. We're the No. 1 defensive team in the postseason. In order for us to win, we have to defend. That's what we've been doing."
It's wrecked the Hawks through two games. Mike Budenholzer's club has shot just 42.9 percent from the field in this series and only 20.4 percent from long distance en route to losing consecutive games at Philips Arena for the first time all season.
The Hawks might have hoped for a hot start after the just-before-tipoff announcement that small forward DeMarre Carroll would be in the starting lineup just two days after suffering what looked like a very scary knee injury, but it didn't materialize. Atlanta opened up 2-for-10 from the floor and seemed stuck in the mud, despite the heretofore-under-wraps Korver clearly looking for his own shot early.
Despite his post-Game 1 self-flagellation about iso-ball, James attacked the clearly-not-100-percent Carroll, repeatedly looking to make the Hawks swingman deal with his full array of moves. He drove to the basket and forced Atlanta's hand, drawing a flagrant foul on reserve big man Pero Antic on this first-quarter drive:
Looking none the worse for wear with Irving in street clothes on the bench, Cleveland finished the first on an 11-4 run to take a 26-21 lead into the second with LeBron scoring 13 points and Thompson outrebounding the Hawks in the first, eight to seven.
The Hawks got unstuck in the second quarter, with Teague, Horford and reserve swingman Bazemore providing sparks of offensive life. But when Dellavedova exited after picking up a foul with 5:37 left in the quarter, LeBron shifted focus from scoring to setting the table, creating open 3-point looks for Jones and Shumpert to push the Cavs' lead to eight with a couple of minutes left in the half. They'd head into intermission up 54-49, thanks in large part to 24 combined points from Shumpert, Jones and J.R. Smith, who didn't match his Game 1 onslaught, but didn't need to, since the rest of the Cavs bench was chipping in.
The Hawks stayed within a couple of baskets through the first three minutes of the second half, with Horford hitting a fading shot in the lane over the outstretched arm of Mozgov to bring Atlanta back within five at the 9:15 mark. From there, things got ugly.
James completely took over, continuing to force the Hawks to help Carroll and Bazemore in their efforts to keep him out of the paint. That caused breakdowns on the perimeter, which the always-scanning LeBron turned into wide-open looks for now-in-rhythm shooters, sparking a 19-4 run — he scored or assisted on 17 of the 19 — to put the Cavs up by 20 with 3:36 remaining in the third.
Atlanta never threatened after that, and things went from bad to worse when Korver exited late in the third after Dellavedova rolled up on his right leg in a scramble for a loose ball:
... and when Horford, who'd been shaken up earlier in the game when he landed awkwardly after contesting a Smith drive, again seemed to hurt his leg while setting a screen on Shumpert early in the fourth quarter:
X-rays on Korver's right ankle came back negative, and Horford said he was OK after getting hit in the quad. But with the run of play going against them, Carroll clearly not himself, Millsap and Teague seeming incapable of getting their offensive games going, precious few answers on the bench and the possibility of a sweep looming at Quicken Loans Arena, the Atlanta Hawks are in a bad, bad way, and their fans know it:
The Hawks and their fans aren't the first folks LeBron's left staring and wondering how the hell you're supposed to stop all that. No All-NBA-caliber power forward, no All-NBA-caliber point guard, no problem and, now, no need to return to Atlanta. All James has to do to punch his ticket to his fifth straight NBA Finals appearance is win a couple of games at home ... where the Cavs are 24-2 since Jan. 15.
Budenholzer and company need to come up with some new questions, and quick. Because it sure looked on Friday night like LeBron has all the answers he needs to get Cleveland back to the championship round.
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