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Things appeared easier than they actually were for the Cavaliers on Monday, as the East’s top seed delivered a red-hot half, an extended bout of iffiness and a rather-casual closing to put away the Hawks in Cleveland, 104–93, in Game 1 of the conference semifinals. At times, it was a thorough dissection. At others, the faults that may eventually sink Cleveland’s ship were less than subtle. Atlanta brought the game close despite off nights from several key players, yet parts of the matchup portend issues that will make pulling the seven-game shocker exceedingly tough.
Here are some things we learned from Game 1, mostly in the order in which we learned them:
1. As tough as the Hawks are defensively, the Cavaliers’ firepower means it might not matter. Don’t take that the wrong way: Atlanta boasted the East’s top defense in the second half of the season and is as principally sound a team as you’ll find north of San Antonio. Al Horford and Paul Millsap are fundamentally solid and outstanding help defenders, and that allows the Hawks to line up relatively small on that end while playing their preferred, balanced offense.
Well, it took less than five first-quarter minutes to see that the Cavs’ shot-making ability, especially in spurts, could render that considerable strength ineffectual. Cleveland came out stroking three-pointers and racked up six in the opening period, ably answering Atlanta’s punches and taking a 30–19 lead by the time it was over. When LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and J.R Smith are all hitting (not to mention Kevin Love, who at that point wasn’t), the game can turn on just a few beats. This ability to spurt is and will be the Cavs’ trump card for the rest of the postseason.
2. There might not be a productive solution for Atlanta’s matchup chess. Coach Mike Budenholzer will have to hit the right notes for his team to have a chance in this series, and the Hawks started off with Kent Bazemore playing James mostly straight-up. The starting fives opened with Jeff Teague and Irving and Kyle Korver and Smith matched up both ways. Down low, the Cavs stuck Love on Horford and put Tristan Thompson on the more mobile Millsap, with the Hawks playing it vice-versa.
When both teams’ starters are out there, Love is the critical figure. His shooting opens up the floor for James and Irving, and his ability to work the glass helps prevent opponents from gang-rebounding on Thompson. Defensively, Love can be a liability when opponents can make him work or put him in isolated situations. Though he was just so-so in Game 1, shooting an ugly 4 for 17 from the floor, he looked engaged and came on stronger in the second half before leaving late with an apparent leg injury, which followed a fourth-quarter shoulder issue.
Regardless, the Hawks did little offensively to attack him, and it looks like the Cavs will be able to give him a full workload: Horford’s not quite the heavy post-up threat he used to be, and Mike Scott operates mostly in space. Cleveland’s first-half success, maintaining a substantial lead for the entire 24 minutes, boded well, also thanks in part to…
3. The Cavs’ small-ball bench lineup. Coach Tyronn Lue rested James late in the first quarter and brought him out for the second as the functional center and screen-setter, surrounded by Matthew Dellavedova, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert and Richard Jefferson. Want a simple reason why James is an alltime great? Name three other players who could make that lineup feasible.
This made for an interesting early-series wrinkle from Cleveland, and as Atlanta initially stayed big with Horford (who was unable to expose Frye in the post), the Cavs ping-ponged the ball around, using James as defensive cover and as a primary playmaker. James is a menacing roll man, opening up driving and shooting space just by floating around without the ball, and able to attack from an advanced position or make the right pass off the catch. Millsap had issues covering him, and that was with Dellavedova handling the point. Watching it all unfold, you couldn’t help but imagine what that would look like with the ever-dangerous Irving pairing with James instead.
4. Plot twist! The Cavaliers indeed ran the Irving-James screen action in the second half, but the Hawks made the correct adjustment and managed to bottle things up enough. The solution? Atlanta stayed under picks, limiting James’s ability to open up and catch, and took their chances with Irving. He can swing games as a scorer, but runs hot and cold when limited to jump shots and leaves plenty to be desired as a playmaker. It was a gambit that worked enough to stall a slow-to-adjust Cavs attack and gave the Hawks a serious chance to steal the game.
A massive 24–7 run carried Atlanta between the third and fourth quarters, as the offense finally started to chug and Cleveland grew sloppy. The Cavs lost defensive focus and any sort of bead on the dynamic Dennis Schröder, who finished with a playoff career-high 27 points on 50% shooting. Schröder and Millsap baffled Irving and Love in the pick-and-roll, and when the German guard hits his threes, he can be as elusive as they come. That said, Cleveland will accept big Schröder games every time, so long as they come with off shooting nights from Millsap (6 for 19), Horford (4 for 13) and a disappearing Kyle Korver, who managed just one shot from the field despite being draped by Smith most of the game.
5. Do the Hawks have a chance at the eventual upset? Perhaps, but after one game, the dominant tenor of the Cavs’ first half feels more indicative of where things are headed. They kept the game at three-possessions’ length with ease, and that was with Love mostly a non-factor. Thompson terrorized the glass and has improved his defensive understanding and ability to play as an undersized center with little issue. Cleveland was so good that it overshadowed how quickly Atlanta, at one point down 18, rallied. The Cavs’ struggles also resulted from a bizarre refusal to attack the basket, with Irving staying mostly outside and James shooting just one free throw. Any adjustments Lue made nearly came too late. But the Hawks’ missed opportunities were the fourth-quarter story: Atlanta missed seven shots in go-ahead or tying situations with a couple of killer turnovers.
The Cavaliers finished on a 17–5 run, laughing on the bench as if nothing had happened. Though they weren’t unscathed by any means, the Hawks may look back at this one remorsefully. Game 2 is Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET in Cleveland.