Need proof? Atlanta’s 15 assists on Friday night tied a season low.
Need more proof? Cleveland closed the game with 10 consecutive misses from beyond the 3-point line and still finished at 40 percent from deep as a team.
While Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll brought the Philips Arena crowd to its feet during pre-game introductions with a surprise start, it was LeBron James who quickly hushed the building as he attacked a hobbled Carroll on nearly every play to start the game.
“It’s always difficult to guard LeBron,” Carroll said. “He’s a physical player and a smart player. He knew I was injured so he came at me with full force. I would’ve done the same if he was injured. At the end of the day, he’s a great player and he led his team to victory.”
James had 30 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds for the Cavaliers, who led by as many as 20 in the fourth quarter en route to a 94-82 victory. It marked the 74th time in James’ career in which he finished with 30 points or more in the postseason, tying him for the fourth most all time with Jerry West.
“I’ve got a good vocabulary but I’m sort of running of superlatives for that guy,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt said. “He’s just a great basketball player. Everything more that you would add to that is probably better than I can say.”
James was in complete control of his team’s offense, leading them to hit 12 of their first 20 3-pointers. Eight of James’ first nine assists were on 3-pointers, helping blow open the game for Cleveland in the third quarter.
“I’ve seen every coverage that a defense can offer me.” James said. “I always try to be a triple threat on the floor – to score, to pass, to rebound. I have a lot of confidence in my teammates to put it up and shoot it. I just try to put the ball exactly where it needs to be for a catch and shoot or catch and drive.”
The biggest benefactor from James’ passes was Iman Shumpert, who made 4-of-6 from deep and finished with 16 points:
“A lot of the time, you find yourself open with a lot of guys cheating,” Shumpert said. “You only got to tell [James] one time that someone’s looking a little too much and he’ll find you and snap the ball at you. There’s energy in the ball when you get it and you just have to knock them down.”
The Cavaliers kept knocking them down. James Jones and Matthew Dellavedova (starting in place of injured Kyrie Irving) combined to shoot 5-of-12 from deep after combining to shoot 0-of-6 in Game 1.
“You always get the excitement of two guys being able to benefit from a pass,” James said. “When I’m able to put pressure on a defense and then make a pass to a teammate and he’s able to knock it down, I’ve always gotten the excitement of that more than anything. I have a gift and that’s why I’m able to keep defenses off guard … They can’t really make me do what I don’t want to do.”
Atlanta simply didn’t have answers for Cleveland’s shooters.
“When you combine really good perimeter shooting – I think they were 64 percent from three at the half – with good penetration and a good attack game, that’s when you become very difficult to guard,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We’ve got to be better getting out to shooters. They’ve played well the two games and I don’t think we’ve been at our best. You’ve got to give them credit.”
On the other end of the floor, Atlanta’s offense was surprisingly stagnant. Each player uncharacteristically took a turn trying to get his own offense going. For a team reliant on ball movement, the ball seemed to stop too much, allowing Cleveland to load up on defense.
“We said at the end of the game that we played too much isolation ball,” Carroll admitted. “We didn’t play our team ball. That’s what really hurt us. The biggest thing going into Game 3, we’ve got to look at film and get back to playing Atlanta Hawks basketball. I think we didn’t do that tonight.”
Cleveland also took advantage of second chance opportunities off the glass. The Cavaliers collected 11 offensive rebounds on 43 opportunities, meaning they essentially grabbed an offensive rebound on every fourth missed shot.
“Offensive rebounding is a weapon at a number of different levels,” Blatt explained. “It’s also going to help your transition defense when the other team is going to have to take the ball out of the net more often than not. Our guys are going aggressively but intelligently to the glass. When they can get it, good. When not, they are getting back. That is something we are going to have to continue to concentrate on.”
Cleveland’s defense was also phenomenal, limiting Atlanta to just six 3-pointers on 26 attempts. Atlanta’s four All-Stars combined for just 40 points and two of them – Kyle Korver and Al Horford – left the game due to injuries. Korver left with a sprained right ankle and did not return, while Horford returned shortly after a right knee scare.
Paul Millsap, the team’s leading scorer in the regular season, registered a season-low four points and had minimal court presence. To sum it up, Atlanta will need to change a lot of things if it wants to beat Cleveland.
If Game 2 wasn’t a must-win for the Hawks, you can be sure that Game 3 on Sunday will be. Only 16 teams have come back from a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-7 series, and James’ teams are 14-0 when opening a 2-0 lead.
Jacob Eisenberg just graduated from Emory University and works as an NBA columnist for Sheridan Hoops, specializing in analytics-based scouting reports for individual players. Follow him on Twitter and check out his website.