LeBron James hasn't lost an Eastern Conference playoff series since 2010 when he peeled off his Cavaliers jersey after losing to Boston. He went to Miami, and then returned to Cleveland and everything from his supporting casts to his foils (Boston, Chicago, Indiana and now Atlanta) went through the spin cycle with him. There's been a steady, constant truth hanging over the conference for the last five years: James can be beaten, but no one has managed to do it when he plays his best.
The Hawks sealed a 3-1 season series victory over the Cavaliers with a 106-97 home victory on Friday, a sixth straight win for Atlanta and an impressive one at that. NBA darlings for January thanks to a 19-game winning streak, the Hawks wobbled ever so slightly out of the All-Star break before righting the ship the last two weeks. Meanwhile, James and the new-look Cavaliers were finally clicking, putting together 12 straight wins and exiting the break with another four-game winning streak.
It might be tempting to view Friday's result as validation of Atlanta's merits as a contender, but in truth there wasn't much new to be gleaned from its nine-point victory. The Hawks aren't the East's No. 1 seed by accident, and they are certainly balanced, disciplined and deep enough to beat the Cavaliers in a playoff series if James plays like he did on Friday. But will they be able to withstand the four-time MVP's full force and fury when it's do-or-die time? That question simply can't be answered more than a month in advance.
Chicago thought it had James backed into a corner after a blowout victory in Game 1 of the 2011 Eastern Conference finals. He responded with four straight wins. Boston thought James was on the ropes entering Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, only to watch him turn the series upside down by unleashing 45 points in Game 6. Indiana managed to go back and forth, game for game, in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, only to run out of gas in Game 7. Indiana was back again that next year, but home-court advantage, a Game 1 victory, an ascendant Paul George and a little ear-blowing wasn't enough to topple James.
James will enter the 2015 playoffs with perhaps the biggest talent gap between himself and any other individual player in the East during his entire career. George, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh are all expected to miss out. Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry are all currently sidelined or have missed time recently. Dwyane Wade and Paul Pierce are on the downslide of their respective careers. John Wall will likely enter the playoffs as the conference's second-best individual performer, but the shaky Wizards aren't scaring anybody. The stage is fully set for a refreshed James to continue his dominance, and his post-All-Star numbers (28.6 points, 7.4 assists, 6.7 rebounds) suggest he's ready to do just that.
That's precisely why Friday's contest, which could easily prove to be a conference finals preview, felt like a letdown, even if it was entertaining and competitive throughout. James' game just wasn't at the A-level needed to judge the true worth of his foes. He finished with 18 points (on 5 of 13 shooting), eight assists and six rebounds, but he finished with a season-high nine turnovers. Two of those came in the game's closing minutes, as DeMarre Carroll intercepted a James pass and Jeff Teague batted the ball out of bounds off James on back-to-back plays, snuffing out any hope of a Cleveland rally. James made just one fourth-quarter field goal, and he was never able to reverse the momentum generated by a 10-2 Atlanta run early in the quarter.
The Hawks' defense deserves credit for making James work, particularly Carroll, the unsung member of Atlanta's strong starting five. Atlanta did well to pressure James and Kyrie Irving, disrupting Cleveland's offensive approach. Still, James was just all over the map. He threw a scatter-brained pass out of the post, regained possession and then lost his handle on the ball for two turnovers in five seconds. He bailed out of a high pick-and-roll and gifted a steal to Atlanta's perimeter defense. He collapsed the defense but then threw the ball toward an invisible teammate in the corner, with the ball heading toward Cleveland's bench. He lasered a pass across the paint right to Paul Millsap. And so on, and so on.
"I sucked," James admitted after the game. "I sucked. Tonight was one of those nights."
Committing turnovers against the Hawks is a great way to lose a game. Teague's quickness, Korver's transition sniping and Atlanta's general combination of high IQ players and willing passers combines to make the Hawks a particularly tough cover in transition. The final damage on Friday was 17 fast break points and 20 points off turnovers for Atlanta, two key indicators that helped compensate for a worse-than-average shooting night on the perimeter.
[daily_cut.NBA] To be clear: Friday's defeat was nothing compared to Cleveland's memorably embarrassing 127-98 loss to Atlanta in December. The Cavaliers' new starting five of James, Irving, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov has entirely rewritten the team's season, producing obscenely good advanced numbers since they came together following multiple midseason trades. That group has posted a +24.8 net rating (118.1 on offense, 93.3 on defense) for the type of dominance that almost makes Atlanta's own scintillating starters (+9.8 net rating, 110.3 on offense, 100.5 on defense) look ordinary. James, for his part, isn't dwelling on a possible playoff matchup with Atlanta.
"I can't be worried about the Hawks right now," he told reporters. "It's not like we're going to face them in the first round. ... We need to continue to improve. ... We can't be worried if we see them down the line. We have to worry about today."
The question in December was whether James had the necessary pieces to find success. The question now, as in previous years, is whether James will again prove to be the East’s defining force, capable of withstanding the best everyone else has to offer. This year’s surprise team, Atlanta has answered the bell time and again, knocking off Golden State in a much-anticipated showdown, compiling an 11-game lead in the conference standings and clinching a playoff spot earlier this week. Yes, the Hawks look poised to pounce if James should slip or falter, but “King of the East” remains his title to lose.