Out of four conference semifinal series, two have been quite one sided. One of those “unfair” encounters is between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Atlanta Hawks.
The Cavs hold a 2-0 lead as we head into game 3, picking up the series in Atlanta. The Cavs have won both games by double digits, twice holding the Hawks under 100 points. Game 2 was quite a formidable win, beating the Hawks 123-98 while setting a new record for three pointers in a game. The Cavaliers made 25-of-45 three point attempts, something that stunned the Hawks, but also vexed them. Maybe they were mad at themselves for allowing such a performance, but after the game, they seemed petty and bitter with their comments.
But all that doesn’t matter. Losing 10 consecutive playoff games against Cleveland and facing a similar situation to the one they were in last season against the Cavs, eventually losing 4-0 in the conference finals, the Hawks need to find a way to both stop the outside shooting and find some sort of way to make things difficult on both LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. James is averaging 26 points in this series, Irving is at 20. Their success is what makes things so easy for J.R. Smith, scoring 23 points in the game 2 win, sinking seven 3’s.
Behind all the snarky remarks about class and professionalism, the Hawks know they’re getting routed. Coach Mike Budenholzer said that they need to get better in a lot of areas, probably starting with our transition defense and all the way through, and execute better offensively to take some pressure off our defense. The Hawks have been outscoring the Cavaliers in the paint, but Cleveland can live with that as long as their advantage beyond the arc remains intact.
Kyle Korver, something of a three-point expert himself, gave the Cavaliers a compliment, suggesting they might be the best team in the NBA when their three-point shots fall. James spoke after the game about the “3” not being the identity and goal of the Cavaliers. They try to be balanced and spread it around, but if it’s there for the taking, they’ll take it. Whether he likes to admit it or not, the NBA has changed. The Golden State Warriors haven’t invented relying on the three, but they’re doing it better than anyone. In order to beat them, that advantage needs to be taken away from them.
But the Cavaliers are trying not to get ahead of themselves. Shifting courts can often change the momentum in the series. A Hawks are counting on it, although playing the right kind of basketball and finally finding something that works for them offensively makes more sense than hoping home court saves them. The problem is, that for the second straight year, the Hawks might be good, but not good enough to really handle themselves against the elite of the NBA. As popular as it is to critique the Cavaliers for simply not being the Warriors or the San Antonio Spurs, in their own Eastern conference playground, they’re in a quality tier of their own.