Game 3 of the 2015 Eastern Conference finals will not be remembered as an especially well played example of NBA basketball. Over 53 minutes, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks handed each other many opportunities to win, with either team only intermittently taking advantage. The Hawks saw their best player ejected under controversial circumstances. Each team came into the game without an All-Star. For these and many more reasons, these squads offered decidedly less than what we hope to see from title contenders.
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We should be thankful for LeBron James, a player so great that he can provide a handful of transcendent moments even amidst such dreck. After starting the night shooting 0-of-10 from the field, James finished with 37 points (14-of-37 FG, 8-of-10 FT), 18 rebounds, 13 assists, and three steals for his 12th career playoff triple-double (passing Jason Kidd for second on the all-time list). As usual, LeBron did a lot of everything, though not always efficiently, as the Cavs pulled out a 114-111 overtime win to move up 3-0 in the series. They can now finish off the sweep in Tuesday's Game 4 for the franchise's first NBA Finals appearance since 2007.
He also came up big when his team needed him most. Despite tweaking his ankle early in the extra period, James never left the court and stuck around for five points in the final minute. The first bucket came with 36 seconds on the clock and the Hawks just having taken a 111-109 lead on a Jeff Teague three-pointer with 55 ticks left. James missed a mid-range shot that would have tied, but Tristan Thompson was there for his seventh rebound and passed back out to his teammate on the perimeter. LeBron sent Paul Millsap past him with a pump fake and nailed the go-ahead three:
LeBron made a defensive impact on the next play by challenging a Teague layup and forcing a miss too hard off the glass. At the other end, he put up this lay-in for a three-point lead:
With one possession left to keep themselves out of a 3-0 hole, the Hawks ended up going to an unlikely option. Third-string point guard Shelvin Mack, who had played all of 47 minutes this postseason prior to Game 4, missed two tough threes to seal the result:
Hawks skeptics have pointed to the team's lack of a top-level superstar as one reason they were never really a championship contender, but this game almost served as a parody of that argument. With Kyle Korver ruled out for the remainder of the playoffs after Game 2, Al Horford ejected right before halftime for elbowing Cavs irritant Matthew Dellavedova, and increasingly ineffective backup point guard Dennis Schröder benched after just three minutes, the Hawks trotted out Mack, backup center Mike Muscala, and little-used reserve wing Mike Scott for key stretches of Game 3. While Mack's attempts at tying the game may have seemed ridiculous in the context of their 60-win regular season, they were acceptable in the context of Sunday night. Mack was actually one of Atlanta's better players, putting up 13 points (5-of-10 FG) and three assists in 28 minutes.
Nevertheless, it says something about the state of the Hawks that they had to rely on Mack at all. Even when things went well for them in Game 3, the broader dynamics of the matchup suggested that they were fighting an uphill battle to take the win.
It started in the first quarter, which Atlanta won 24-21 in a solid showing. However, the course of those 12 screamed that the three-point lead was not likely to last long. LeBron shot 0-of-9 for the worst shooting quarter of his career, the Cavs shot 6-of-27 from the field (salvaged by a 4-of-9 mark from deep) while getting zero second-chance points off nine offensive rebounds, and the Hawks turned it over zero times. Given those numbers, the Hawks should have built a greater advantage instead of the one-possession lead they held.
To their credit, they played the Cavs essentially even in the second quarter before Horford's ejection. Reasonable minds can differ as to whether he really had to be removed from the game, but the decision appeared to have saddled the Hawks with a forthcoming loss right then and there. He had put up 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting as the team's primary offensive option and appeared to be the only guy capable of both protecting the rim and rebounding enough to avoid giving Cleveland more second chances.
LeBron's performance in the third quarter made it clear that the Hawks missed Horford's interior presence. James went for 15 of his 37 points in the period, continually making it to the rim in the process. This empathic dunk was the clear highlight:
Despite his excellence, the Cavs entered the fourth with a relatively minor 81-76 advantage. That's largely because the Cavaliers have no quality options for shot creation apart from LeBron, whether via his own shooting or a kick-out to a three-point shooter like Iman Shumpert (15 points on 4-of-8 from deep), Dellavedova (17 on 4-of-9), or J.R. Smith (17 on 3-of-9, although many of those were off the dribble). With Kyrie Irving sidelined for a second-consecutive game and hobbled when he plays, the Cavs are nearly fully dependent on one player for their points. They're just lucky enough that the player is the best of his generation.
The Hawks are not so fortunate, although they cobbled together enough offense to stick with the Cavaliers right up until the final minutes of Game 3. After Horford's ejection, the Hawks depended on point guard Jeff Teague (30 points on 9-of-23 FG and 9-of-9 FT) and Paul Millsap (22 points on 5-of-11 FG and 11-of-11 FT). Neither has risen to their All-Star form with much consistency this postseason, but Teague attacked with an aggression that has been lacking in this series despite an apparent matchup advantage. The end product wasn't always there, but he was instrumental in helping the Hawks fight back from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to force overtime. They just didn't do enough to get the necessary result.
That's no consolation for a team that needs four straight wins to stave off vacation. For all they did right in Game 3, the Hawks didn't have enough to best the Cavs. This was not one of LeBron's better games, and this veritable one-man show is certainly not what he and the rest of the franchise envisioned when they put together this roster. But they have so far met each one of their goals, no matter how halting the progress has been. With one more win, they'll have matched the heights of LeBron's first tenure with the franchise. A grueling ascent still gets you to the top.
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