The Cleveland Cavaliers advanced to their second straight Eastern Conference finals in a sweep over the Atlanta Hawks. The best has yet to come for LeBron James and Co.
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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.
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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.