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There were plenty of things the Hawks needed to do better in order to steal Game 2 against the Cavaliers in Cleveland, and yet they hardly mattered. The Cavaliers put together their second dominant first half in as many games, and that was really all it took: a 74-point demolition of Atlanta’s defense bred a 36-point lead at the midway point. The Cavaliers finished a forcefully-convincing 123–98 victory on Wednesday, which staked the reigning conference champs with a 2–0 lead as the series moves south.
As the old adage goes, “they just made shots.” Indeed, the Cavs did. They made enough to shoot standard postgame clichés into acceptable truisms, burying 18 of their 24 first-half makes from deep, setting a playoff record for threes in one half, and rendering a sound defensive team utterly helpless. It took 18 minutes for J.R. Smith to bury six by himself. The Cavs broke the NBA record for threes in a playoff half (18), threes in a playoff game, and threes in a game, ever (25). The historic shot was drained by Dahntay Jones, who is apparently now a member of the Cavaliers. It was that kind of night.
A quick 7–2 Atlanta lead? Well, that was all they got. The Hawks started Paul Millsap on LeBron James, risking a size mismatch with Kent Bazemore on Kevin Love. That wrinkle would have been far more fascinating had the game not broken recklessly loose, beginning with consecutive right-corner threes from Love and Kyrie Irving, feeding off dribble penetration. They keyed an 8–0 stretch in less than a minute of regulation, taking the lead and erasing the Hawks’ early success.
The game turned for good soon after, as James willed another first-quarter run, 11–0, essentially by himself. He caught a full-court bomb from Love at the foul line, leaping over defenders to corral the pass, then spinning beneath the basket one-on-three, pump faked and finished for an easy layup. He pulled up for an easy three on the next possession. On the ensuing trip, he fired a one-handed, lefty bullet from the top of the arc into the hands of Irving, who was curling beneath the basket and then found Love staggeringly open in the corner for three. James then grabbed a defensive board, brought it up, and hit a wide-open Smith for the 30–16 lead. The Hawks never caught their breath.
By halftime of Game 1, it was clear the Cavaliers’ volcanic potential for quick points and ability to do so with some regularity set them apart. They’re the East favorites for a reason. But after two games, it’s now clear that Tyronn Lue’s initiative to play smaller has grown considerable legs. Cleveland has aggressively adjusted its philosophy, with a fully-stocked playoff roster, and offensively appears a natural fit for the style that so-methodically ousted them from the Finals a year ago.
Unsurprisingly, a great deal of why all this works has to do with James, whose eternal journey to win one for The Land looks just a bit more auspicious at the moment. The Cavs can bomb threes with their starting five, but also with weird bench lineups that feature Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, and a true-to-form James bullying his way around. With his powerful drives and innate, high-difficulty passing, he generates enough space to play him alongside four guys who mostly can’t. With respect to Andrew Bogut’s comments, and the Warriors as a whole, any discussion of Draymond Green as the best all-around player in basketball can wait.
As Western Conference contenders beat each other up, the Cavaliers are undefeated through six playoff games. With a continued quality of focus, they’re surely talented enough to cruise through six more. James finished with 27 points, five assists and four rebounds, also rediscovering his deep stroke with four threes. Smith was a viable sidekick, continuing to thrive in a simplified role, finishing with 23 points, and serving as an early-game catalyst.
To be totally fair, the Cavs have yet to draw a playoff opponent with the means to truly push them on defense. They’ll make the long-ball, but not 20 times a night. The Hawks have just Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder to create individual offense, not quite enough to consistently outscore a a team full of scorers nor to expose the flaws in Cleveland’s current look. It might be the next series or the Finals before that happens, but when the Cavs are scrambled defensively, trailing when it counts and need stops before they can make a shot, that’ll be the real test.
But, for now, this is as good as it gets in Cleveland. About time, really.
Game 3 is Friday in Atlanta.