8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Cleveland -7, Over/Under: 198
For the second consecutive postseason, the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers meet in a Best of Seven Series, and after one game it doesn’t appear as if the outcome of this encounter will be any different than last year. When these teams met in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, it was the Cavs who unceremoniously swept the higher-seeded Hawks in four games, which was particularly impressive given that they were without the presence of Kevin Love for the entirety of the series, who was nursing a separated shoulder. This time though, the reigning Eastern Conference Champions are at full strength, which appears to spell doom for their opposition. In Monday Night’s 104-93 victory at Quicken Loans Arena, the Cavaliers (57-25, 1st in Central Division) were in control throughout, save for a small stretch in the Fourth Quarter where the visiting Hawks tied the game at eighty-eight points apiece with under five minutes to play. Tyronn Lue’s charges blew a sizeable eighteen-point lead, but managed to right the ship by limiting Atlanta to just a pair of field goals over the final four minutes of play. And who else but LeBron James would save the day? With just 2:09 remaining in the contest, James completed a crucial three-point play as the hosts went on a 17-5 run to secure the victory. The four-time MVP filled the stat sheet with twenty-five points on 11-of-21 shooting (52.4%), along with seven rebounds, nine assists, five steals, and a block, including a huge steal of Hawks’ Guard Dennis Schroder late in the final stanza. The aforementioned Love has made the most of his first extended Playoff run, adding seventeen points of his own on 4-of-17 shooting from the field (23.5%), including 3-of-9 from beyond the arc (33.3%), along with eleven rebounds, an assist, a steal, and a block. Kyrie Irving, the third member of Lue’s triumvirate registered twenty-one points on 8-of-18 shooting from the floor (44.4%), including 3-of-5 from downtown (60.0%), along with a rebound, eight assists, a steal, and a pair of blocks. The Big Three aside, the biggest takeaway from Game One was the fact that Cleveland beat the Hawks at their own game. The Cavs spread their opponent out with deadly three-point shooting (15-of-31, 48.4%), and a superb twenty-seven assists, while proving very active on the defensive end of the court with nine steals and seven blocks. And though the game was played at a largely slower pace, James and Co. made the most of their opportunities in transition, besting the visiting side in Fast Break Points (14-7), thanks in large part in scoring a dozen points on eight turnovers. Monday Night’s victory marked the ninth consecutive postseason win over Atlanta, the second-longest such streak in the league. In last year’s dominating sweep, Cleveland absolutely obliterated Atlanta form beyond the arc, nailing a total of 49-of-123 treys (39.8%), parlaying into a decisive sixty-nine-point advantage in that department. J.R. Smith in particular was on fire, draining 16-of-34 attempts (47.1%) himself over the four games. Fast forward nearly a year, and the erstwhile Guard who never met a shot he didn’t like, netted 4-of-7 from long range (57.1%), with the money ball accounting for all twelve of his points. Clearly, the Cavaliers’ hot shooting from the previous series against the Pistons has carried over, and if the Hawks can’t find a way to temper that part of that game, then this series will end in the same manner as their previous postseason encounter.
Meanwhile, this has to feel like deja vu for the Hawks (48-34, 2nd in Southeast Division). After surprising the league en route to a franchise-best sixty wins and achieving the top seed in the Eastern Conference, Atlanta was swept in embarrassing fashion against Cleveland. Now after Monday Night’s eleven-point defeat, there are hardly any encouraging signs. Though Mike Budenholzer’s charges deserve credit for a furious Fourth Quarter Rally, in which they managed to erase an eighteen-point deficit and actually take the lead, it cannot be ignored how poorly they played over the rest of the game. We already covered how well the Cavaliers shot the ball, particularly from three, but the Hawks failed to challenge them in kind throughout the contest. It’s hard to win many games shooting 37.9% from the field, let alone on the road in the Playoffs against the defending East Champions, but it’s even more difficult when your stars don’t show up to play. While their opponent’s triad of All-Stars had their way offensively, the Hawks’ three-headed scoring machine of Al Horford, Jeff Teague, and Kyle Korver accounted for just twenty-one points on a miserable 6-of-23 overall (26.1%). Horford (15.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.5 blocks) struggled despite a plethora of looks, scoring ten points on 4-of-13 shooting from the field (30.8%), while adding six rebounds, an assist, a pair of steals, and three blocks. Teague (15.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.2 steals) was largely invisible throughout the affair, totaling eight points on 2-of-9 shooting from the field (22.2%), along with two rebounds and four assists. Korver (9.2 points, 158 3FG, 39.8% 3FG) though, might as well just checked out, as the sharpshooter accounted for just three points, missing his only field goal attempt of the night. The problem here is that if Korver isn’t engaged and stretching the defense by making a high percentage of three-pointers, he doesn’t bring much else to the table. However, Teague’s ineffectiveness is a bigger deal, for despite this team’s overall balance, the majority of his teammates rely on him to set them up. Essentially, he’s the head of the proverbial snake. As a team, Atlanta was just 11-of-34 from beyond the arc (32.4%), while failing to get much of anything in transition, scoring just eight points. Witht hat said, they did a great job of pounding Cleveland on the glass, outrebounding the home side 58-53, with a stellar fifteen offensive rerbounds providing them with some sorely-needed second-chance opportunities, which helped fuel their aforementioned their failed comeback attempt. Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore were particularly active on the boards, accounting for twenty-five of that total, including a dozen of the offensive variety. In fact, Millsap racked up eight all by his lonely. Young Guard Dennis Schroder was also a surprise, scoring a postseason career-high twenty-seven points on 10-of-20 shooting from the field (50.0%), including 5-of-10 from beyond the arc (50.0%), along with three rebounds, and six assists. The challenge now will be how to get him AND Teague going at the same time, which would force the Cavs to commit to one or the other defensively, and as a result opening things up for Korver.