Already down Kevin Love to a separated shoulder injury, the Cleveland Cavaliers found themselves missing Kyrie Irving in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals as well. Their star guard was still nursing a sore left knee, putting Cleveland down two members of their Big Three. Still, one out of three ain’t bad, at least if that one is LeBron James, who is pretty used to carrying teams by himself at this point in his career.
James led the Cavs to another surprisingly simple victory in Game 2, 94-82, wilting what had been a wily Atlanta crowd for the second-straight game and taking his team back to Cleveland with homecourt advantage and then some. The Cavaliers have a 2-0 lead in this series, and LeBron-led squads are 14-0 in playoff series in which they win the first two games.
To do what all the others could not, the Hawks now have to win four of the next five games, three of which will be in Cleveland. That’s asking a lot against this version of James.
Without Irving in the lineup, coach David Blatt and the Cavs asked their superstar to do a lot more ballhandling, especially with backup point guard Matthew Dellavadova playing ineffectively and with foul trouble in the first half.
James responded in a big way.
Despite still being in the process of resurrecting his jumpshot, James rumbled into the lane time after time, finishing in a bevy of ways when he had the chance. When he didn’t, he set up his teammates to drop some bombs. Eight of LeBron’s 11 assists came on three-point shots, and most came with the defense collapsing off a drive.
Iman Shumpert played another great game as a straight three-and-D guy, shooting 4-for-6 from long range, and James Jones, getting some extra run with LeBron playing more point forward, did his thing from downtown to finish 3-for-5.
The Cavaliers’ team defense was perhaps the most impressive element of their collective performance, as they flummoxed what was once a free-flowing Atlanta offense and held them to just 33 second-half points.
The Hawks that were gleefully launching threes and whipping the rock around the floor early in the season have been fading for months, but the Cavs have turned this team into a group of offensive ghosts in the first pair of games.
Kyle Korver has just four three-pointers in two games and an extra shadow of a defender chasing him at all times. The rest of the Hawks, either by indecision (Jeff Teague) or temptation (Dennis Schroder), were coaxed into foolish plays in the pick-and-roll or isolation, failing to properly move to ball against the Cavs crisp rotations on defense.
Atlanta played with a tentativeness that’s marked of a fresh playoff contender. But the Cavaliers deserve some credit too, especially Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson, both of whom have raised their level of play significantly on defense during this series in the absence of Kevin Love. Thompson especially has shown off a newfound ability to protect the rim a bit, and he’s been instrumental in controlling the glass and limiting Atlanta possessions.
Ultimately, LeBron has showed once again that sometimes, having the best individual basketball player in the world can be the best trump card. He almost single-handedly controlled the tempo of Game 2, running the break with gas or finessing his way into deliberate, half-court isos when he needed to slow it down on the road.
The difference in the second game was that not only was James getting his, he was cooking up looks for his teammates as well, and that gave him the answers to any and all Atlanta runs. Even if you didn’t know the Cavs were up 2-0, you could see how much they’re already in control of this series just by how well LeBron played on Friday night.