Though no stat line feels surprising anymore, no moment too big, there are certain games that beg you to sit back and appreciate LeBron James. Friday night’s 94-82 Cavaliers win was one of them, the Atlanta Hawks the victims, the Eastern Conference finals swung firmly in Cleveland’s favor by night’s end.
With his performance carrying even greater weight than usual as an increasingly beaten-up Kyrie Irving sat out with left knee tendonitis, James went into force-of-nature mode. It’s a state that spoils its witnesses with its frequency, and feels easy to take for granted. It’s a state that tends to arise when his team requires it most, and requires the most from him. And like clockwork, James took Atlanta to task and the series into his own hands.
He had it all going, exiting the game in the fourth with 30 points, 11 of his team’s 17 assists and nine rebounds. The Cavs needed James, the lone playmaker on the floor, to move the ball, and 60 of their 94 points came from or through him. He set the tone with 13 points in the first quarter. He got a scoreless Iman Shumpert going in the second quarter, the well-coiffed role player finishing a plus-27 with 16 points, all four of his threes off assists from James. The four-time MVP reminded us he was the man almost entirely responsible for the James Jones playoff revival tour, the latter registering another useful contribution of nine points on a trio of threes.
As the leader of a team still jelling entering the playoffs, James has been the consummate pace-setter, regardless of his team’s results (and more often than not, they’ve been wins). His on-floor leadership has been a constant, barking out orders and establishing intensity through the ups and downs of his second-round play against Chicago and his backhand did-he-or-didn’t-he critique of coach David Blatt. It’s grown clear that little can hold him back from a chance at his third championship, though it’s beginning to look like Stephen Curry might have something to say in the Finals.
We joke about Tristan Thompson calling him a "father figure," about Irving’s lukewarm reaction to the term, but on Friday, it was never more obvious that James-as-alpha-male, a persona he’s honed over time, has reached a powerful zenith. He’s elevated a supporting cast bizarrely rag-tag enough to recall his first term in Cleveland, with Thompson destroying the glass (16 rebounds) and Shumpert, J.R. Smith (a ridiculous Game 1) and Matthew Dellavedova (who’s gone from wannabe wrestler to surprisingly adequate in about a week) all discovering new confidence.
[daily_cut.nba]James’ utter dominance and the Hawks’ overall untimely ineptitude weren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but they were without a doubt mutually destructive, on a night at home where Atlanta couldn’t afford to fall behind any further. Historically, James’ teams that have gone up 2-0 in best-of-seven series are 14-0.
Through Atlanta’s lens, it was an inexcusably bad night. Forget that designated LeBron-shadow DeMarre Carroll was hobbling around after spraining his knee in Game 1. The Hawks fell markedly far from the form that won them 60 games, overly and oddly reliant on freelance play. Paul Millsap scored four points. Dennis Schröder led the team in scoring with 13, which tells you most of what you need to know.
Superseding everything by night’s end were two injuries that, if serious, could mark this series over before the next game even starts. A sprained ankle for Kyle Korver, who left for good at the end of the third quarter, and an undisclosed knee problem for Al Horford who exited at the start of the fourth, would cripple Atlanta’s shot at regaining any control in this series. But even if both return and Carroll’s knee improves, it’s looking like a far cry if Atlanta’s level of play stays constant.
At the midway point, a slowly paced contest had quickened and things looked very much up for grabs, Cleveland leading 54-49. It wasn’t pretty on either end, but that’s playoff basketball in the East sometimes. Trouble found the Hawks in the third quarter, as the ball movement dimmed and the offense sputtered accordingly. A tentative Jeff Teague, guarded by Dellavedova and without the burden of marking Irving on the other end, missed a pair of layups and failed to settle his team down. An All-Star point guard shooting 5-of-16 for just 12 points in that matchup won't do you any favors. As a point of comparison, Dellavedova shot 4-11 for 11 points.
A 21-6 third quarter Cavs run left Atlanta buried before the fourth quarter even started, iso-heavy Cleveland even managed to out-assist the pass-happy Hawks. It came thanks to playmaking from James—they weren’t exactly beaten at their own game, but it’s yet another alarming sign. They'll need everything they have left to even the series, the question now becoming, thanks to injuries and these struggles, what's even in the tank.
As the series shifts to Cleveland over the weekend, things aren’t quite over, but Atlanta has fallen to desperation level against the wrong opponent at the wrong time. If LeBron wants to end things back home, give his team some needed rest, let Irving nurse his wounds, he’ll have every chance to do that. After all he’s shown these playoffs, with these Cavs, you’d be remiss to second-guess him.