After a record-setting Game 2 performance, the Atlanta Hawks vowed that the Cleveland Cavaliers wouldn't hit 25 3-pointers again in Friday's Game 3. Let it never be said that Mike Budenholzer's charges are not men of their word: the Cavs only made 21.
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Despite a more spirited effort from the Hawks in front of their hometown fans at Philips Arena, the Cavaliers' rampaging offense just kept rolling, notching 20 triples for the third time in seven 2016 playoff games and becoming the first team in NBA history to make at least 20 3s in back-to-back games en route to a 121-108 win. The Cavs have still yet to lose a playoff game when LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have suited up, improving to a perfect 11-0 with a victory that draws Cleveland within one win of a second straight series sweep after dispatching the Detroit Pistons in four, a postseason sweep of the Hawks for a second straight year, and a second straight berth in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Hawks did what they could to keep pace, getting their own offense untracked, matching Cleveland deep shot-for-deep shot through three quarters, and carrying a six-point lead into the final frame. As was the case in Game 1, though, the return of James spelled doom for Atlanta, with the Cavs ripping off a 22-5 run after he checked back in at the 7:41 mark of the fourth behind a downright unguardable five-out lineup: James, Irving, Love, J.R. Smith and trade-deadline acquisition Channing Frye, who absolutely torched Atlanta for a career playoff-high 27 points on 10-for-13 shooting (7-for-9 from 3) in 28 minutes off the Cavs bench.
While the Cavs put the game on ice after James' return, Cleveland's late-game kick started with him still on the bench.
Atlanta led 94-85 with 11:14 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Hawks responded to both the embarrassment of their Game 2 defeat and the urgency of getting on the board in the series, led by stars Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver, whom Budenholzer moved to the bench for the first time since April 2013 in hopes of A) beginning the game with better defensive comportment by starting Thabo Sefolosha in Korver's place and B) finding opportunities for the long-range marksman to get in a groove away from the attentive off-ball defense of Smith. The latter, at least, worked out well, with Korver knocking down his fifth 3 of the game to give the Hawks that nine-point lead.
Over the next 3 1/2 minutes, though, the Cavs caught fire, with Irving and Frye punishing Atlanta's attempts at traps and contests to the tune of five buckets (four 3s) in six possessions, getting Cleveland within four when LeBron checked back in. And when he checked back in, he did so very loudly, indeed:
With legitimately dangerous 3-point shooters everywhere — Frye and Love in the corners, Irving and Iman Shumpert (and, later, Smith) on the wings — Atlanta's defense had to play LeBron straight, which was enough of a problem. Then, Shumpert cut across to set a screen, triggering the perimeter switch that left James one-on-one with Korver, elevating the matter from "problem" to "abject catastrophe." The play ends at the rim and with a thunderous throwdown, as the prophets foretold.
That dunk, really, was the beginning of the end. Thirty-six seconds later, a LeBron 3 gave Cleveland back the lead; two minutes after that, an Irving drive for a layup put the Cavs up seven; three minutes after that, a Love 3-ball pushed it to 10 with 1:36 remaining. Here lie the Hawks, again, at the hands of LeBron and the Cavs, thanks to a 36-19 fourth quarter in which Atlanta could neither stop the ball nor get itself started.
Frye led the scoresheet, but Cleveland's Big Three carried the load. James finished with 24 points on 8-for-16 shooting, 13 rebounds, eight assists and two steals. Love had 21 points on 7-for-17 shooting, 15 rebounds and three assists in 29 minutes. Irving added 24 (12 coming in the fourth) on 9-for-19 shooting, including a 4-for-5 mark from 3, to go with three assists and three steals, including an important one to strip Teague in transition with just under two minutes remaining in regulation — the Atlanta point guard's first turnover of the game — to halt a Hawks break and lead to a Love triple that effectively ended the evening.
A minute later, angry after not getting a foul call he believed he deserved on a drive, Teague took out his frustrations on James with a hard, flagrant foul that sent the four-time MVP careening into both the baseline cameras and the fans seated behind them:
James quickly got up, seemingly none the worse for wear. He even checked on the cameramen and fans to make sure they were OK before hitting the two free throws that came with the flagrant, pushing the lead to 13 before Budenholzer and Tyronn Lue got everybody out of there. We could be just 48 minutes away from getting everyone out of Philips Arena for the rest of the summer; Game 4 tips on Sunday.
The fivesome of James, Love, Irving, Smith and Frye blew the Hawks' doors off, outscoring Atlanta by 13 points in just five minutes of shared playing time. With so much shooting on the floor and the ability of Irving and James to break down defenders off the bounce, that looks to be an absolute hammer of a lineup for which even Atlanta's starry frontcourt of Horford (24 points on 11-for-15 shooting, three blocks, three assists, two steals) and Paul Millsap (17 points, eight rebounds, four assists, two steals, one block) has no answer:
It remains to be seen, really, who does have that answer.
Maybe we'll get to find out in a Finals rematch, this time with Cleveland at full strength and capable of dialing the kind of offensive firestorm that produces 61 3-point makes in three games. (Albeit against an Atlanta defense that tends to give up long balls in bunches, and that survived doing so in Round 1 largely because the Boston Celtics couldn't shoot.) One thing's for sure: it's looking next to impossible to envision a scenario in which the Cavs don't hold up their end of the bargain ... and getting tougher to even imagine them losing more than one game, maybe two, before they get there.
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