Early in the season, the Atlanta Hawks stole the thunder and the hype in the Eastern Conference from LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. While the Cavs stumbled to a 19-20 record into mid-January, the Hawks spent the early parts of the new year winning 19 games in a row.
As LeBron has a history of doing, however, he found a way to win the Eastern Conference again in the end, this time sweeping away the hapless Hawks and winning Game 4 in a 118-88 blowout to help Cleveland advance to the NBA Finals in the first year of James’s homecoming.
For LeBron, it’ll be his fifth consecutive Finals appearance and sixth overall. His last non-consecutive appearance was back in 2007, during his first stint with the Cavaliers, a series in which they were swept in four games by the San Antonio Spurs.
The Hawks were swept by a far different version of James now leading a far different team than in 2007. While still not perfect, LeBron’s 23-point, 9-rebound, 7-assist, 1-turnover line on 10-20 shooting from Tuesday night encapsulates his impact on this series: multi-faceted and steady. He nearly averaged a triple-double in the series, basically the statistical equivalent of that description.
James has been trying to find a rhythm on his missing jumper all postseason, but he hasn’t let that cost him or his team efficiency for the most part. Instead, he has gone back to what he does best, whupping smaller players in the post and using the pick-and-roll to shred heeling defenses. Atlanta had nothing close to an answer for James physically with DeMarre Carroll injured and Thabo Sefolosha out, and it showed.
The rest of the Cavaliers stepped up in bigger ways than LeBron’s Cleveland squads of the past. Tristan Thompson put together another huge effort in Game 4, once again almost single-handedly controlling the boards, an area that was hugely import for the Cavs in this series. Thompson continued his usual excellent work on the offensive glass (five offensive boards), but he cleaned up on the defensive end (six defensive boards) as well.
Thompson has shined with the added responsibility in the absence of Kevin Love, spending more than 40 minutes per game in the first three games of the series eating the Hawks’ small lineups alive and notching a double-double in 31 minutes in Game 4. While he wasn’t spectacular protecting the rim, he was solid in that area and helped disrupt Atlanta’s offense all series long.
J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert both continued to play strong perimeter defense, and Smith notched a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds off the bench. Shumpert had a rough shooting night in Game 4, but he grabbed eight boards and handed out four assists. Even Matthew Dellavedova continued his strong play, hitting some key buckets to keep the Cavaliers lead growing after the crowd gave him a hero’s welcome in the first half.
Kyrie Irving actually started Game 4, and the TNT broadcast team spent most of the game talking about how they didn’t think he should be playing. Despite that––and admittedly, despite looking not quite right––Irving still played extremely well, scoring 16 points in 22 minutes with five assists to boot. It’s hard to say whether he should have played, but he certainly didn’t hurt Cleveland, and he now has eight days to rest up before his first trip to the Finals.
Irving’s health will be a crucial factor for how the Cavs will fare against any Finals opponent, but this conference finals series will hopefully be a boost for the rest of the team, which could also use the rest. James has been banged up, Shumpert has been bothered by some minor injuries and Thompson has been playing heavy minutes. Cleveland’s identity in these playoffs has basically been great defense and LeBron drive/kick, so the time off shouldn’t bother them.
In that sense, the Cavs stole back the swagger Atlanta had early in the year. No, they don’t have the pretty ball movement or super-fluid team style on defense, but they’re extremely good at knocking down the threes that James sets up, and with the additions of Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov to the rotations, as well as the emergence of Thompson and rise of James’s defense in the playoffs, this team simply has the manpower to match up with anyone these days on defense.
With LeBron and the Eastern Conference, it seems like we never should have doubted.