LeBron James, Cavaliers rounding into Finals form against Hawks

1:37 | NBA
Ernie Johnson: Here's why I don't like comparing LeBron James to Michael Jordan
Saturday May 7th, 2016

Get all of Jeremy Woo’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.

It was almost a series. Through three quarters, it was a series, and then it wasn’t. It got ugly quickly. Are the Cavs this good? Are the Hawks this far from being up to snuff? It was a bit of both, as Cleveland fought back from a double-digit third-quarter deficit with a 20–3 run and yes, a whole lot of three-pointers paving the way for a 3–0 series lead and a 121–108 win on Friday.

No NBA team has come back from down 3–0, the Hawks have never beaten the Cavaliers in 11 playoff meetings and neither of those things feels all that likely to change. Certainly not when Cleveland can win rebound battles 55–28, collect 18 of those boards on offense and hit 21 threes at a plus-50% clip—a total that would have been a playoff record had the Cavs not broken it already in Game 2, in which they buried 25 longballs. Friday brought a much trickier contest and a redoubled Hawks effort, but, as we’re learning, the Cavaliers’ best moments can wipe a messy slate all the way clean.

Atlanta had to tinker, and tried. Kyle Korver, who had been a non-factor in the first two games, was effectively repurposed off the bench for 18 points. Al Horford finally looked like a go-to guy, establishing himself early and abusing Kevin Love in the post, and on one particularly brutal dunk. As good as he was, the Hawks were outscored by 26 points with him on the floor. Jeff Teague made 14 consecutive assists without a turnover. They made a team playoff-record 16 threes. Somehow, that still wasn’t the recipe. 

MORE NBA: Roundtable: Is LeBron the best player to build around?

When LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are all having 20-point nights, it’s hard to win. When Channing Frye dusts himself off for 27 points on seven threes at the same time, forget about it. As discombobulated as the Cavs were at times, even with their opponents flipping turnovers into transition baskets, when they bury the longball, things can end in a few minutes. If you hedge on the three, there’s James, barreling to the rim and opening those shots up anyway. Hammer found nail down the stretch. There went the series.

PHOTOS: LeBron James’s best playoff performances of his career

Defending that type of talent, employing that style of play for 48 minutes is a brutal task for any team, never mind the East’s top regular-season defense. The Hawks earned the 63–55 halftime lead, closing on a 20–5 run. They were up by 11 at one point in the third. But the Cavs chucked away, undaunted, mostly sharing the basketball and eventually thundering back to flip the script. It’s odd to have such a small margin for error against a team that can be so mistake-prone in itself; credit Cleveland for finding the poise it has sometimes lacked. It may not be this good the rest of the way, but the greater gains might be the difference.

After a season of sporadic iso-balling, off-court turmoil and very public soul-searching, the Cavs have settled in a (three-point) happy place heading into Sunday’s Game 4. It’s bad news for the rest of the East, and a warning shot to whomever makes it through the other side of the bracket.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.