ATLANTA—Let’s start here: David Griffin should have been Executive of the Year. Nothing against Bob Myers, who tapped Steve Kerr to replace the self destructive Mark Jackson,who signed Shaun Livingston to supplement his dynamic starting frontcourt. But c’mon: This shouldn’t have been close.
Griffin, Cleveland’s ginger G.M., signed LeBron James. Let’s say that again: He signed LeBron James. I know: James didn’t come back for Griffin. Griffin didn’t pull a Pat Riley, didn’t dump his rings on the table. He couldn’t. He doesn’t have any. But Griffin was the executive of record when James shook up the NBA landscape. That has to count for something.
So does this: In January, Griffin shipped Dion Waiters to Oklahoma City in a three-team deal that netted J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. Days later, Griffin traded two protected first round picks to Denver for Timofey Mozgov. The offense improved. The defense, too. On January 5th, the Cavaliers were 19-16. They finished 53-29. And as the clock ticked toward zero in Cleveland’s 97–89 win over Atlanta in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, it was Smith and Shumpert sharing the floor with James, with Mozgov, a 10-point, 11-rebound in 24-minutes stint in the books, clapping on the sideline.
Any argument for Atlanta in this series begins with the fundamental belief that the Hawks are the better team. Cleveland has the best player; James ceded the MVP award to Stephen Curry this season, but you will be hard pressed to find too many NBA personnel who don’t think the King is still king.
[daily_cut.NBA]The Hawks? They go nine deep. They have four All-Stars. They have a backup point guard who someday could be one. They play unselfish, defend and make three’s. A bunch of really good players can overcome one great one, the argument goes, especially when Kevin Love has his arm in a sling and Kyrie Irving is hobbling around on one leg.
So what did we learn on Wednesday? LeBron is still great. James muscled through early foul trouble to finish with 31 points, eight rebounds, and six assists. The Hawks are still deep—nine guys played at least 10 minutes. But the gap in total talent in this series may not be as wide as originally thought.
Smith came to Cleveland with a reputation. He was two years removed from a Sixth Man of the Year award season. It felt like 20. Smith was the nightclub guy. The shoelace guy. The guy who could make five three’s one night and forget the score in the final minute the next. He was radioactive. Everywhere but Cleveland.
Is LeBron the G.M.? Many say yes; the opt out in his contract grants James unprecedented control. James says no. “Our front office, they have the last say so,” James said. But prior to acquiring Smith, they asked James: What do you think?
James’s response: “Get him here,” James said. “I got him.”
James and Smith go back. When Smith was in high school, James said, Smith came to Akron, Ohio, to workout. “Multiple days, multiple times,” James said. James knew the player, the immature vagabond who bounced from New Orleans to Denver, from China to New York. But he knew the person, too. And he believed the person—and the player—was redeemable.
“You always just want to try and give someone an opportunity,” James said. “I knew the man he was and I didn’t really care about what everyone else thought about him.”
With Cleveland, Smith has experienced a revival. His scoring averaged ticked up. His field goal percentage and three-point percentage did too. The goofiness was gone—a two-game suspension for a violent slap to the face of Boston's Jae Crowder in the first round notwithstanding—replaced only by a singularly focused player. Did it for his Mom, Smith said. She was tired of the silliness too. And with Love down, with Irving unable to stay on the floor, there was Smith on Wednesday, pumping in 28 points, keying a game changing 22-4 run in the third quarter with 17. These weren’t open looks, either; Hawks defenders were rubbing against his jersey.
“He made a handful of tough shots,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said.
Said Jeff Teague, “He made shots when people were draped all over him.”
Mozgov controlled the paint, spearheading Cleveland’s 49-37 obliteration of Atlanta on the boards. Shumpert only chipped in four points, but he was a primary defender on Kyle Korver, who only scored nine. Of all of the Hawks problems this postseason, Korver looms as perhaps the largest. His three-point efficiency has vanished—entering Wednesday, Korver was connecting on 35% of his three’s in the playoffs, down more than 14% from his league-leading percentage in the regular season—and his inability to create space has left Korver as little more than a subpar defensive decoy.
Friday’s Game 2 becomes close to a must-win for the Hawks, who didn’t exactly walk out of Phillips Arena brimming with confidence. DeMarre Carrollwent down with a knee injury in the fourth quarter; an early diagnosis is a knee sprain but there is a palpable fear that Carroll, who needed to be helped off the floor, suffered something more severe. Carroll is one of Atlanta’s better two-way players, charged with defending James on one end and keeping him honest defensively on the other.
Irving’s injury—he reaggravated his left knee injury in Game 1, limiting him to 27 minutes—makes Cleveland vulnerable, but the continued production of the Cavaliers' midseason acquisitions will provide a big boost. And it could. The bench area after a win resembles an interview mosh pit, with national and local affiliates conducting postgame Q-and-A's. Shumpert did one, finished, and waited for Smith. Both paused and waited for James, whose interview dragged a minute or so longer. When he finished, he embraced Smith and Shumpert separately, whispering words to each before leading them off the floor. The King and his new sidekicks.