It took about 22 months, in the wake of LeBron James’ return to Cleveland, but you can start to see the plan is coming together.
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James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving once again formed a remarkably formidable triptych on Sunday afternoon, as the Cleveland Cavaliers downed the Atlanta Hawks 100-99 in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to return to the East finals. This series win comes on the heels of the team’s sweep of Detroit in the first round and, well, consider:
When LeBron James, Kyrie Irving & Kevin Love all play, the Cavs are 12-0 over the past two postseasons. That's not bad
— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) May 8, 2016
Kevin Love was the tipping point. The Cavaliers forward missed six of his first seven shots prior to hitting seven of his next 10 (his first two misses after that run were followed by him corralling his own offensive rebound). Love, playing in his first conference semifinal, hit 8-15 3-pointers in the win, a career-high in makes from long range. He finished with a team-high 27 points alongside 13 rebounds and four assists.
Irving played 42 minutes yet turned the ball over just twice, registering eight assists along the way. He added 21 points, and yet he wasn’t the team’s only workhorse: Love and James played the duration of the third quarter as Cleveland outscored Atlanta by six in the period.
LeBron, per usual, was the immovable object. James turned the ball over six times and had four of his shots blocked (including three on one Charles Smith-esque turn at the rim with fewer than 90 seconds left in the game), but he contributed nine assists, 10 rebounds and 21 points.
That Smith-esque battle resulted in an instant replay call giving the ball back to the Cavaliers after a James layup attempt frittered out of bounds. Gifted with an impromptu timeout as the referees consulted the tape, LeBron and the Cavs responded with a back-cut past Atlanta forward Paul Millsap to dive to the rim for a layup attempt that Millsap ended up goaltending on, putting Cleveland up 98-97.
Hawk point guard Dennis Schroder (who led the team with 21 points) then had a layup blocked by ostensible center Tristan Thompson, which led to James nailing a long jumper in the face of Millsap (possibly the Eastern Conference’s most versatile defender) to put the Cavaliers up 100-97 with 39.2 seconds to go. Following a Schroeder layup out of a timeout that brought the score to within one, James missed a 3-pointer that could have sealed things.
He responded by hounding Schroder on the other end, as the Hawks tried to take the game in the final seconds while working without a timeout. As James clasped the ball without fouling, a jump ball was called. LeBron won the tip, and Millsap’s 3-point attempt was short following a scrum.
The attempt wouldn’t have counted anyway, as it was released just after the final horn. None of it would have really counted even had the shot been clean, if we’re honest, as even a desperate Atlanta win would have left the Hawks down 3-1 to a Cavaliers team that has finally come into its own.
The Hawks failed to learn the lessons of Games 1-3 in the first half, allowing the Cavaliers to shoot 10-16 (62 percent) from long range during that 24-minute span. Still, Atlanta did well to take one-point leads at sparkly times during both the third and fourth quarters. Millsap scored 19 points in the loss alongside nine rebounds, Horford added 15 and Thabo Sefolosha (starting for the second game in a row on LeBron) stayed aggressive on his way toward 16 points on 12 shots. Those 16 points represented a season-high for the swingman, who was stripped of his right to play in the postseason the year before.
Sefolosha’s on-ball defense against LeBron, who shot 10-23 and 0-3 from the line, was pristine. It was his team defense, however, that was lacking: Thabo overplayed several screen-and-roll runs between James and Love, failing to communicate with his front-court helpers as Love bled to the corners for a series of 3-pointers. Even when the Hawks defense (the East’s best during the regular season) closed out, Love scurried for a Dennis Scott-like pump fake and step-back, prior to nailing what was his.
“We wanted to be as desperate as they were,” James told ABC’s Lisa Salters after the game, and that was more than obvious.
Smelling blood in the water and pouncing on a team for a sweep isn’t always a precursor to a championship run, as several eventual NBA title-winners have let themselves down in the face of a cornered opponent. With eight convincing wins in eight tries, though, this certainly doesn’t hurt Cleveland’s image.
The carryover stereotype, as the Cavs frittered away a season and a half during the LeBron 2.0 era, is that the team had relegated Love to a Channing Frye-type existence. Asking him to play the part of stretch power forward by routine, eliminating the all-around parts of his offensive game that made him so special. The skills that allowed him to average 27 points per game just two years ago.
In Game 4 (and with Frye, now a Cavalier mainstay, working alongside him for 19 minutes and two 3-pointers of his own), Love did act the part of a stretch power forward more than anything else, but even had the Cavaliers lost, this perimeter-heavy turn felt different. Cleveland, with LeBron at the helm, was able to think on its feet and use the Hawks' long arms (the defensive aptitude that served the team so well between December and April) and pressure against them.
It wasn’t just Love. Cleveland nailed 16-37 from long range, yet hardly seemed worse for the wear defensively. The team looked dangerous. The team looked in sync with each other.
The team looked comfortable in its own skin. That might be the scariest takeaway of all.
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