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The series ended in a flurry of confusion, the result still expected and to an extent, inevitable. The Hawks had put together a competitive 48 minutes yet trailed by one with the ball in Dennis Schröder’s hands and no timeouts. It wasn’t really even a chance to save the series, but it was something, an opportunity.
Another explosive drive to the rim was Atlanta’s final move, as Schröder blew past the perimeter into the paint, an area he’d owned on his way to 13 points in the quarter. Then, there was LeBron James sliding in help-side, shrewdly halting the momentum and tying up the ball. The ensuing jump between the two players with a couple seconds left felt like a formality; a Paul Millsap jumper rattling in and out (and probably too late, anyway) and the Cavaliers completing the sweep, 100–99, on Sunday.
Cleveland’s flaming swath of three-balls and pair of playoff sweeps is part of the story here, as is James’s sixth straight trip to the conference finals. It’s also a major win for Tyronn Lue, whose verbal small-ball commitment has spawned—at least for now—the most dynamic offensive group outside the Bay Area. The Hawks were no pushovers defensively. It’s just the Cavaliers were essentially unguardable, hitting threes at a plus-50% clip in four games thanks to the sort of offensive balance that had dreamers and realists salivating since the day Kevin Love arrived from Minnesota.
The Hawks shot 48% from the floor, won the rebounding battle by a board, turned it over three fewer times but cooled from long distance as the game went on. Entering the series, it was fair to think this was a much-improved team from a year ago. But that team was swept by the Cavs one round later, sans the injured Love and Irving. If last year’s run was a testament to James’s dominance, this one, so far, speaks to his all-time great versatility. He’s been more guiding hand than elemental force these playoffs, though it’s foolish to doubt a 40-point game is far from his grasp. His 21 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists—despite six turnovers—got it done. Cleveland’s lineups, big and small, starters and reserves, hinge heavily on James, and he’s yet to miss a beat.
PHOTOS: LeBron James’s best playoff performances throughout his career
LeBron James' Best Playoff Performances
May 24, 2015 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 3
LeBron James missed his first 10 shots but finished with 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists in Cleveland's overtime victory over Atlanta. James, who favored his right leg for most of the fourth quarter and OT, hit a three-pointer with 36.4 seconds left to put the Cavs ahead by one, and the superstar dropped a runner with 12.8 left to make it 114-111.
May 12, 2014 — Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 4
LeBron James matched his career playoff high and set a Miami franchise record with 49 points as the Heat held off the Nets 102-96 to take a 3-1 series lead. LeBron made 16-of-24 from the field and 14-of-19 from the free throw line in 43 minutes. He previously scored 49 points for Cleveland in a 2009 postseason game against Orlando.
June 18, 2013 — NBA Finals, Game 6
With the Heat facing elimination, LeBron James shook off a slow first half to score 16 fourth-quarter points, including a key three-pointer with 20 seconds remaining in regulation. He finished with his second triple-double of the 2013 Finals, tallying 32 points (on 11-for-26 shooting), 11 assists and 10 rebounds in the Heat's 103-100 OT victory over the Spurs.
May 22, 2013 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 1
LeBron James capped off a triple-double (30 points, 10 assists, 10 rebounds) with a buzzer-beating, game-winning layup in overtime of Miami's 103-102 win over Indiana. James was the first player in NBA playoff history to record a triple-double and buzzer-beating game-winner in the same game.
June 19, 2012 — NBA Finals, Game 4
LeBron James was heavily criticized for his play in Miami's Finals loss to Dallas in 2011, but it was hard to quibble with his performance a year later against Oklahoma City. Exhibit A was Game 4. Just minutes after leaving the game with leg cramps, James returned to nail a go-ahead three-pointer with 2:50 left as the Heat defeated the Thunder 104-98. LeBron finished with 26 points, nine rebounds and 12 assists for the Heat, who took a 3-1 series lead en route to winning James' first championship two nights later.
June 7, 2012 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 6
With the Heat facing elimination, LeBron James erupted for 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a 98-79 victory. James joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to post a 45-15-5 line in a playoff game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Even more impressive, he made 19-of-26 shots from the field, including 12 in a row after missing his first attempt.
May 20, 2012 — Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 4
Miami trailed 2-1 in the series and got off to an awful start in Game 4. But LeBron James responded with an all-around gem that included 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists as he teamed up with Dwyane Wade to spark a 101-93 victory, with the two stars scoring 38 consecutive Miami points at one stage. The Heat won the next two games, too, to close out the upstart Pacers.
April 25, 2010 — Eastern Conference First Round, Game 4
Fresh off 40- and 39-point performances against Chicago, LeBron James kept up his torrid pace by going for 37 points while adding 12 rebounds and 11 assists for his fifth career triple-double. Perhaps most notable: LeBron, not known for his deep shooting, nailed six three-pointers in Cleveland's 121-98 rout.
May 28, 2009 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 5
LeBron James had a series of spectacular performances in this series, the last being a 37-point, 14-rebound, 12-assist outing that kept Cleveland alive (the Cavaliers, though, would be eliminated in Game 6 at Orlando as LeBron struggled). LeBron scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, which started with the Cavs trailing by a point and ended with their pulling away for a 112-102 victory.
May 22, 2009 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 2
This game will be remembered for having the signature shot of LeBron James' career: a buzzer-beating, game-winning three-pointer to punctuate his 35-point effort and even the series at 1-1 as the Cavs defeated the Magic 96-95.
May 20, 2009 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 1
Before his Game 2 buzzer-beater, LeBron James opened the series by setting a franchise record with 49 points (on 20-of-30 shooting from the field). But Orlando rallied from a 15-point halftime deficit to win 107-106.
May 9, 2009 — Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 3
Hawks forward Josh Smith described LeBron James as being "out of his mind." That was a fitting summation of LeBron's performance: 47 points and 15-of-25 shooting from the field, along with 12 rebounds, eight assists and only one turnover in Cleveland's 97-92 win enroute to sweeping Atlanta.
May 18, 2008 — Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 7
LeBron James scored 45 points and Paul Pierce countered with 41 in a memorable Game 7 duel. Pierce's Celtics edged James' Cavaliers 97-82.
May 31, 2007 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 5
LeBron James famously scored Cleveland's last 25 points (and 48 overall) in a 109-107 double-overtime victory over Detroit. The Cavaliers also won Game 6 to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history and become the third team to overcome a 2-0 deficit in the conference finals.
May 3, 2006 — Eastern Conference First Round, Game 5
LeBron James' game-winning, last-second layup lifted the Cavaliers to a 121-120 overtime victory over the Wizards, gave them a 3-2 series lead and capped a performance in which he finished with 45 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
James, Love and Irving each finished with 20-plus points for the second straight game. Love popped open and snuck to spots to the tune of eight threes, making it the third game in a row Cleveland’s had a brilliant turn from a shooter. following the increasingly indispensable pair of J.R. Smith and Channing Frye. They’re playing with a bit of fire, turning their intensity on and off at times. Still, if they hit like this anything’s within reach. It is, however, a bit of a tricky evaluation given that the Hawks never quite found a real weak spot to attack on the other end of the ball. The lineups that work now may not matter in June, and sustaining defensive focus and matching up is the biggest question left for the Cavs.
Can you play Love and Frye together, the Cavs’ most difficult cover, against the skill of LaMarcus Aldridge and Boris Diaw, or the hyperactivity of Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala? The odds now say we’ll find out, as the Heat and Raptors drudge through a series of their own, both without their starting centers. Ridiculously high-velocity offense has put those concerns on pause for now. The stars are lining up. It’s just a matter of how far.
As for Atlanta, this all makes for a bit of a reality check, with Al Horford and Kent Bazmore hitting the open market and Schröder looking convincingly like a player who needs 30-plus minutes per night. The Jeff Teague trade rumors likely aren’t dying anytime soon. The Hawks’ philosophy and structure has proven impressive, but their lack of truly bankable scorers again lent itself to their downfall. They did, however, catch a buzzsaw to the head in this series and retaining Horford ought to be plans A, B and C. Finding scoring on the wing and figuring out the point guard situation are next up.
Anyway, on go the playoffs and on go the Cavaliers. We may have now seen pretty much their entire hand, and it’s more than mildly terrifying for the rest of the league. Try not to think too far ahead, but … ok, think a little bit ahead. And whether LeBron’s next nemesis is Dwyane Wade or Drake, watch closely.