Friday night’s dominant Game 2 win by the short-handed Cavs over the injury riddled Hawks was a great example of why I never took Atlanta seriously. Sure they had their injuries with DeMarre Carroll at less than 100 percent, and both Kyle Korver and Al Horford sustaining in-game injuries, but the fact that they weren’t able to defend the home court despite the Cavs being without both Kyrie Irving (ankle, knee) and Kevin Love (shoulder) was a problem. All season long the Hawks had trumpeted the fact that while they didn’t have a true superstar on their squad, they could and would win games through team basketball, but none of that team-first oriented basketball was on display Friday night. LeBron James picked them apart, and they parted at the seams, regressing to iso-ball with guys trying to get it done by themselves.
While people in Atlanta’s PR department will try to spin the fact that they are without a superstar into something positive, that specific issue has really emerged in this Eastern Conference Finals series with the Cavs. They don’t have that guy who can turn nothing into something, they don’t have that guy who can take over when things aren’t going their way, and while they do have a very good head coach at the helm that has put a very good system in place, a system can only take a team so far. They have been out-talented by Cleveland, more precisely LeBron James, and Atlanta is now staring down an 0-2 hole with the series headed back to Ohio.
The King Does What He Pleases
LeBron James just could not be stopped Friday night, and he basically got whatever he wanted. DeMarre, Kent Bazemore, and Paul Millsap all tried their hand at guarding the King, but to no avail. A lot of the game was watching LeBron collapse Atlanta’s defense, either finishing strong at the rack or using the eyes that he had surgically implanted in the back of his head during the offseason to make a perfectly impossible pass to his man on the wing. In addition to the fact that teams that go up 2-0 in a best-of-seven series win 94 percent of the time, LeBron James led teams are 14-0 once they go up 2-0, so this looks just about over for the Hawks.
James finished the game just one rebound shy of a triple-double with 30 points on 10-of-22 shooting (8-of-11 from the stripe), 11 assists, nine rebounds, two 3-pointers, one block and four turnovers over 39 minutes of action. This was James’ 74th time hitting the 30-point mark during his postseason career, tying Jerry West for the fourth-most all-time postseason games with at least 30 points. In total, James was responsible for 60 of the Cavs' 94 points, and he is single handedly taking his team to the Finals. Ever since Kyrie went down with the knee and ankle injuries, LeBron has been absolutely carrying Cleveland’s offense, and he’s posted a usage rate of 38.0 during that span.
In addition to LeBron’s offense, he’s been playing some elite defense throughout the playoffs, holding his opponents to just 39.8 percent shooting from the field for a defensive differential of -3.9 percent. In fact, the Cavs as a whole have suddenly become the best defensive team in the league this postseason, after spending much of the regular-season as a bottom-tier defensive club. So far through the playoffs the Cavs are holding their opponents to just 41.2 percent shooting from the field (best among the teams left standing), and they are the best team in the league at defending the 3-point shot holding their opposition to just 28.6 percent from distance. They’re also the best team in the league at limiting their opposition on the glass, holding their opponents to just 40.3 rebounds per game. James was asked after the game why he thought the Cavs have suddenly become such a defensive juggernaut, and without hesitating James credited Iman Shumpert’s insertion into the starting lineup.
Shumpert does provide the Cavs with a nice defensive energy, but his offense was also on display during Game 2. He finished the game with 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting, adding four rebounds, four 3-pointers, one steal and one turnover in the process. Matthew Dellavedova also played admirably in his fill-in role, scoring 11 points with two 3-pointers, six rebounds, four assists, one steal and three turnovers through 37 minutes of action. Dellavedova is nowhere near being the offensive force that Kyrie Irving is, but the fact that the Cavs won so easily tonight with Delly as the starting point guard, Cleveland may want to consider giving Kyrie some additional rest in order to get him right for what will likely be his first Finals appearance.
Something all championship teams need are quality role players, and Thompson fits that narrative. He doesn’t demand the ball, he doesn’t care about his offense, he just understands his role, which is to be a glass-eater for the Cavs, and you got to love that mentality.
“I try to be the best I can be at what I can do, and that’s playing hard and rebounding,” Thompson said earlier in the playoffs. “I watch a lot of Dennis Rodman film, see how he impacted the game, see how he impacted his team when he was playing. Especially for this team, I feel like I can do that and bring it to the table. That’s what I try to do every night.”
When I read that quote earlier this postseason I laughed, but Thompson is the one laughing now. No, I’m not suggesting he’s anywhere near being the rebounding legend that Rodman was, but so far through this year’s postseason, Thompson has been the league’s second-best offensive rebounder with a 14.4 offensive rebounding rate. He went to work during Game 2, grabbing a total of 16 rebounds (five offensive), while swatting away two shots and scoring seven points. He’s also been a leader in the defensive movement, completely taking Paul Millsap out of the series and posting a defensive differential of -14.4 percent. Nice.
DeMarre Carroll: “The Leg? It was a leg. I got out there.”
DeMarre Carroll was asked more than a few times how his left knee felt after the game, and he answered each rehearsed version of the same question with different spins on the phrase, “I got out there.” Carroll clearly wasn’t 100 percent, but you got to credit his warrior-like mentality to fight through the pain, and it’s those kinds of gestures that earn guys a couple extra dollars in a contract year. While it was admirable that he played, he really didn’t bring a lot to the stat sheet, finishing with just six points on 2-of-6 shooting (2-of-2 from the line), three rebounds and zero other statistics. Spending so much time chasing around LeBron James has made Carroll a non-factor on offense, and I don’t see that changing for the remainder of the series. That being said, Carroll did lead the Hawks in minutes during Game 2, and mentioned that the doctors said his knee injury couldn’t get any worse by playing on it, so I fully expect him to suit up for Sunday’s Game 3 in Cleveland.
The Atlanta Hacks?
It was pretty much a dumpster fire for the entire Hawks starting five during Game 2, with each respective player posting a plus/minus no greater than minus-4 and no less than minus-27. Paul Millsap was dominated by Tristan Thompson, finishing with a meager four points on 2-of-8 shooting, five rebounds, two steals, two assists and one turnover. Jeff Teague continued his hot-cold streak, following up his impressive 27-point Game 1 outburst with 12 points (5-of-16 FGs), six assists, two 3-pointers, three rebounds, one steal, two blocks and one turnover, while failing to take advantage of a matchup against Dellavedova. Al Horford limped to the finish line with a quad injury, scoring 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting while adding six boards, two assists, one steal, one block and one turnover. Horford briefly exited the game early in the second-quarter, but quickly returned; and then was helped off the court early in the fourth quarter, only to return shortly after. He clearly wasn’t 100 percent, but he gave it his all, and coach Bud speculated after the game that he’ll be fine for Sunday’s Game 3. It is the playoffs, so players basically have to be very hurt to not play, and this injury didn't look like something that will keep him off the basketball court. Either way, there should be more than a few updates on Rotoworld before Sunday's tip.
Kyle Korver also added his name to the injury report, exiting the game towards the end of the third quarter with a sprained right ankle. The injury didn’t look too bad, and the X-rays came back negative, so I’m expecting him to give it a go on Sunday. He finished the game with 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting, one rebound, one assist, one steal and two 3-pointers. This was Korver’s first time cracking double-figures in the scoring department since May 5 (a six game span), and he really been struggling to get any open looks vs. the Cavs. Over the past two games, 56.3 percent of Korver’s shots have come in tight coverage, and he’s only connecting on 33.3 percent of those looks. Bradley Beal did a very good job defending him during Atlanta’s second-round series, and it looks like the Cavs have taken a page out of the Wizards’ book. With how lethargic Atlanta looked during Game 2, I don’t expect a dramatic turnaround from Korver.
Dennis Schroder led the Hawks team and second-unit in scoring with 13 points on 6-of-11 shooting, adding three rebounds, one assist, one 3-pointer and one turnover over 12 minutes. While I expect Korver to suit up for Game 3 in Cleveland, if he’s unable to contribute at an effective level, Schroder could soak up some of his minutes.
Kent Bazemore would also have the opportunity for more floor time in the somewhat unlikely event that Korver sits during Game 3, but Schroder offers a bit more upside. Bazemore finished Friday’s game with just seven points, two rebounds, one steal and two turnovers though 12 minutes of action.
Mike Scott finally made an appearance after being glued to the bench over the past five games, and he came away with six points on 3-of-6 shooting, a team-high seven rebounds, one assist, one steal and three turnovers while missing all three of his 3-point attempts through 26 minutes of action. Scott’s return to the rotation resulted in Mike Muscala being held to just five minutes, where he registered two points as his only statistic on the evening. While I expect Horford to continue to fight through the quad pain he was dealing with during Game 2, there remains a chance that things get worse for him tomorrow when the adrenaline is gone and the swelling is up. If Horford is forced to sit out Sunday’s Game 3, Scott could move into a feature role for the Hawks, and he’d figure to be a sneaky daily league play.