Down 0-1 at home, the Atlanta Hawks had their chance to hit back in the Eastern Conference Finals. The offensive threat from Kevin Love had been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by a separated shoulder and when Kyrie Irving sat out Game Two of the ECF with knee tendinitis, two of the Cavs top three scorers in the regular season were missing.
Unfortunately, the Cavaliers missing offense proved to be no problem as the Hawks couldn’t get anything going themselves and LeBron James put up 30 points, 9 rebounds and 11 assists to carry his team to the easy 94-82 victory. The final score flattered the disheartened home side, now down 0-2 heading to Cleveland for games three and four.
This wasn’t the way things were supposed to go. The Hawks handled the Cavs during the regular season, taking three of four contests, averaging 109 points on 43 made field goals and shooting over 52 percent from the field.
In the playoffs, however, Cleveland has significantly tightened down on defense, holding the stunned Hawks to just 85.5 points on 9.5 fewer made field goals and 42.9 percent shooting. It’s not like the Hawks aren’t taking shots (just 4 fewer per game), they just aren’t making them. One look at Head coach Mike Budenholzer in the post game pressers and it’s obvious the Hawks have no answers for what’s being done to them.
However, there remains a lot of talk about how James is getting his teammates involved at the offensive end of the court as described by
“LeBron, he sees things ahead of time,” Cavs head coach David Blatt said. “Whether it’s knowing the play that we’re running and understanding where guys are going to be or whether he’s taken very quick mental pictures of where the defense is or where there’s just understanding by his feel for how defenses play him, who’s going to be open where when he makes a move to the baseline or to the middle, or whether it’s the fact that he has terrific court vision and he uses his size so well to see over guys.
“Probably more than anything else, it’s the fact that he’s willing to pass the ball and that he believes in his teammates, and they feel that, they sense that, and that makes them more efficient and effective shooters.”
Mid-season additions Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith appear to be two of the biggest beneficiaries of James’ generosity and the two former Knicks should now have Phil Jackson on their permanent Christmas card list for getting them out of the disaster that is New York and to what looks to be a sure-fire spot in the NBA Finals.
However, while their is a lot of truth to Blatt’s comments about James’ impact, the Cavs are not winning this series with offense. Shumpert and Smith might feel good about their offensive contributions, but they really aren’t doing anything they weren’t doing before. They are just doing it on a better team – albeit a team that is better because James is leading it.
As a team the Cavs are dominating defensively and the (unlikely?) player who has stepped up to assume an impact role has been Tristan Thompson. Thompson is averaging 13 boards and two blocks against the Hawks in the playoffs to lead his team on the glass at both ends of the court. All that great defense wouldn’t count for anything if the Cavaliers didn’t get the ball back, but they are, to the tune of a +10 rebounding differential. No wonder the Hawks are in disarray.
All this really shouldn’t surprise anyone. James led teams have always won with defense – no matter what high-powered offensive players he was paired up with. No offensive help, no problem, James has helped the Cavs be effective in similar situations before.
The Cavs failed to sign Thompson to an extension last fall and the 2011 fourth overall pick has developed into a rebounding machine – especially at the offensive end of the court. Thompson has shown he can be a solid double-double power forward as a starter and an out of his area rebounder – two things the Raptors desperately need.