Heading into Wednesday night’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Atlanta Hawks knew that defeating LeBron James’s team in a playoff series would be a daunting task. James has won 16 of his last 18 postseason series and once again has his sights set on the pot of gold that contains the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Cavaliers dominated most of the second half of Game 1, and after withstanding a late Hawks run, came away victorious and took a 1-0 lead in the series.
Game 1 brought light to a plethora of things: LeBron is indeed the best player in the world and doesn’t need awards and accolades to validate that, the Hawks need Kyle Korver to rid himself of his slump in order to have a puncher’s chance, and head coach Mike Budenholzer needs to make a few adjustments to put his team in better position to win games.
When Hawks fans woke up on Thursday morning, they sifted through the bevy of reports linked to the injury status of DeMarre Carroll and constantly refreshed their Twitter pages. The MRI administered to Carroll would indeed tell the story of the rest of this series. The Hawks’ chances were hanging in the balance and on the strings of test results.
But to the delight of all Hawks supporters, their beloved Junkyard Dog didn’t suffer any structural damage to his knee. He’s listed as day-to-day and is questionable for Friday night’s Game 2, although it’s looking like he won’t play.
Even if Carroll doesn’t play in Game 2, this is incredible news for the team, but it won’t mean anything if Budenholzer doesn’t find a way to channel his inner Gregg Popovich. LeBron imposed his will on the Hawks and took over Game 1 at various points, with quite a bit of help from J.R. Smith.
Atlanta took a 20-12 lead following Jeff Teague’s jump shot with 4:38 left in the first quarter, and you got the feeling that they could actually blow the Cavaliers out of the building. But then you looked up and saw the Hawks shooting 61 percent at the end of the first quarter, yet only led by six. They played well overall in the first half and had nothing to show for it as the the score was tied at halftime. This was incredibly demoralizing.
Whenever the tale-of-the-tape is detailed, the cliché of “There’s no way to stop LeBron, you can only contain him” surfaces. The Hawks didn’t do a great job of doing either as James tallied 31 points on 12-of-26 shooting, eight rebounds and six assists in 38 minutes of action. He became the all-time leader in 30-point, five-assist, five-rebound games in the playoffs with 52, surpassing the great Michael Jordan.
The issue that presented itself for the Hawks was that James was able to penetrate into the lane far too often and get whatever he wanted going to the basket. And when the game was hanging in the balance in the final minute with the Cavs nursing a four-point lead following the Hawks’ surge, James blew right by Paul Millsap and past the help of Al Horford for a one-handed slam that sealed the game.
Atlanta learned in Game 1 that this is indeed LeBron’s world and we just live in it, but after reviewing game tape, they’ll see that there’s a legitimate shot to actually dethrone the King. They must make a concerted effort to play better team defense and force him to the perimeter. Daring him to shoot jumpers is far better than allowing him to muscle his way into the crevices of the defense.
If you allow LeBron to live in the painted area, this will open the floor for their shooters. Smith was able to capitalize on this, as he was able to make a significant contribution to the latest edition of “Where was this in New York?” He scored 28 points and shot 8-of-12 from downtown. Kyrie Irving, who was limited to just 27 minutes after re-aggravating his knee injury, scored 10 points and has resorted to a new spot-up shooting role. James Jones, Matthew Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert also have the ability to stand beyond the arc and shoot threes, so they play major factors in this aspect as well.
That percolation also allows for big men like Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson to free themselves by virtue of double teams, and this leads to easy baskets and offensive rebounds. As noted, James getting into the teeth of the defense is conducive to how the Cavs want to play, and they have the right personnel to do so.
When Popovich employed the dare LeBron to shoot strategy, this wasn’t him showing a lack of respect for his shooting ability. This was simply a testament to his greatness. You have to live with him taking outside shots because the percentages and analytics illustrate this being an intelligent move.
Budenholzer has to be a tad more meticulous in formulating an attack against Cleveland. We witnessed James’s defenders guarding him the length of the court and it ended up burning them. As TNT color commentator Reggie Miller detailed in the broadcast, LeBron is going to come to you, so you don’t need to guard him that far away from the basket. Since he’s much bigger, stronger and faster than most defenders, the smarter move would be to lay off his jump shot.
With the Hawks down 1-0 and facing what amounts to a must-win Game 2, they’ll be looking to come out strong in front of their raucous home crowd. Meanwhile, LeBron smells the aroma of what lies ahead of him. He’s three wins away from his fifth straight Finals appearance and seven shy of his third title and that elusive championship that has been nonexistent in Cleveland since 1964.
With everything that’s at stake for James and how he has salivated at the thought of this since he was a young kid growing up in Akron, it behooves us to take notice of how important this is. The Hawks aren’t just up against him physically, but they’re also battling his emotions and his psyche. Rattling him will be an arduous task, but if Atlanta is going to have any chance, they’ll have to do just that.
Encouraging him to revert back to his jump-shooting ways that deterred him in the past might cause LeBron to take it personally and as a referendum on his game. As a superstar, he just might fall in love with proving the opposition wrong as he did during the Finals last year to the tune of 57 percent from the field and 51 percent down downtown. But there’s a chance that he struggles, which would stymie the Cavs significantly.
LeBron is the ignition of the Cleveland Cavaliers. They were lifeless prior to him returning home – defined by lottery ping-pong balls. If Budenholzer can figure out how to contain him, we might have ourselves a series.