(Atlanta, GA) – Using a near-triple double from LeBron James and second half defense that limited their opponents to just 33 second half points, the Cleveland Cavaliers took firm control of the Eastern Conference finals with a 94-82 victory over the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on Friday night.
James finished with 30 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds to give the Cavs a 2-0 advantage in the best-of-7 series that resumes Sunday night in Cleveland. One eye-popping stat about James’ assist total was that eight of his first nine in that category came on three-pointers.
The victory was especially notable since the team was without the services of Kyrie Irving, who was forced to sit out the game due to continuing issues with his knee and foot.
Immediately after the game, James talked about how the road wins were, accomplished, attributing it to “a collective team effort.” He then added, “In order to win, we have to defend and we’ve been doing that.”
Cavaliers head coach David Blatt was effusive with his praise for James’ effort, saying during the postgame press conference, “I’ve got a good vocabulary, but I’m running out of superlatives about that guy.” A few moments later, he added, “LeBron, he sees things ahead of time. He has terrific court vision and uses his height to see over things.”
Tristan Thompson was again a dominating force in the paint when it came to rebounds, corralling 16 on the night, while also contributing five points. Meanwhile, the duo of Iman Shumpert and James Jones combined for seven of the team’s 12 three-pointers on the evening.
In the locker room after the game, Jones spoke of how the Cavs’ resilience once again manifested itself due to the absence of Irving. “We’ve had to deal with adversity every step of the way, and tonight was another step.” He also talked about the importance of the team concept, saying, “You can have all the great players in the world, but you still need five players on the court.”
Shumpert noted his success came in part because of the flair for assists that James possesses, saying, “You only have to tell this guy (James) once that some guy is sinking, and he’ll get the ball to you.”
The course of the game changed in the third quarter when Cleveland outscored the Hawks by a 30-17 score to take an 84-66 lead. In the first three minutes, the teams simply traded baskets, but the Cavs’ baskets were once from three-point land. Matthew Dellavedova connected on a pair of threes and Shumpert hit for another one as well, boosting the Cleveland lead to 11 at 65-54 with 8:36 left in the quarter.
Thompson spoke of the defensive adjustments that were made after the break, saying about the Hawks, “If you take them out of their set, they have to go one-on-one.” That approach came through perfectly, but Thompson is cognizant of the need to stay focused in order to win two more games to clinch the series, saying, “We’ve got them on the ropes, we can’t let up.”
That served as the precursor to an even bigger expansion of the lead to 20 at 78-58, thanks to a 13-5 run that spread the scoring around. By the end of the quarter, the Cavaliers maintained that 18-point lead.
In the fourth quarter, the Cavs were able to keep the lead in double digits, with most of the starters sitting in the closing moments.
In the early portion of the game, James and Timofey Mozgov served as the Cavalier offense that jumped out to an 11-5 advantage. For the rest of the quarter, the two teams then traded runs, with the Hawks going on a 10-2 spurt, only to see the Cavaliers answer with an 11-4 push that gave them their biggest lead of the quarter at 24-17 with just over a minute left in the period.
Cleveland would end the first quarter with a 26-21 advantage, holding a strong 14-7 advantage on the rebounding front. The Cavalier defense held Atlanta to just 38 percent shooting from the field, while the Cavs’ offense hit at a 52 percent clip.
James’s early scoring success aided in his subsequent double-digit total in assists, as he said, “When I was attacking, I was seeing guys open, and I have the most confidence in my guys to make their shot.”
When speaking of how the team’s defense has become the top unit in the postseason, James attributed the success this way: “We’ve gotten smarter, we’ve ramped up communication. Everyone takes it seriously and understands we have to do it long-term to win.”
Taking a pair of 10-point leads early in the second quarter, Cleveland then watched the Hawks run off eight straight points, and twice get within three points, the last with 3:50 to go before halftime to make it 43-40.
That was followed by eight points from Shumpert over the next three minutes, and after Jones drilled his third trey of the quarter, the Cavaliers soon headed into intermission with a 54-49 advantage.
Blatt spoke of how the game plan for the contest was able to work out, saying, “We did want to attack down hill, and we made good decisions. Our guys played the game right.” He later cited Cleveland’s control of the rebounding side of the ledger, saying, “We’ve been doing a great job of rebounding on both ends.
The Cavs and Hawks resume the series on Sunday night at Quicken Loans Arena, with tipoff set for just after 8:30 p.m. ET.