What looked early on like a more typical early-round Game 1 for a LeBron James-led team, a cruise over an inferior team, instead took on a similar feel to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ round one opener against the Detroit Pistons. The Atlanta Hawks’ three-point attempts that couldn’t hit water from a boat to start the game began falling, particularly for Dennis Schroder, and the Cavaliers were once again forced to kick it into high gear to close it out.
A lead that got as high as 18 points in the third quarter quickly evaporated by midway through the fourth for Cleveland, a curious stretch where the Cavs seemed to toss it down into second gear and wait for the clock to run out – James in particular. The Hawks even took a brief lead with eight minutes to play. But like Game 1 against the Pistons, James and the more talented Cavaliers put the pressure on defensively to force a couple big turnovers late, hit their own shots and denied what could be Atlanta’s best shot to steal a game in Cleveland this series.
Both teams weathered substandard shooting performances from their frontcourts – Kevin Love shot just 4-17 for Cleveland, while Paul Millsap and Al Horford combined for 10-32 for the Hawks. Atlanta was bailed out by Schroder, who hit five of their 11 made triples and finished with 28 minutes and change to Jeff Teague’s 21 (Teague was just 2-9 from the field). Kent Bazemore showed flashes on both ends Monday night, but will need to be more consistent for the Haws to have a fighting chance.
Atlanta and head coach Mike Budenholzer are certainly more equipped than the Pistons to face this team, and had a few tricks in the bag to neutralize some of the things that had worked well for Cleveland against Detroit. Bud went with the Millsap-Horford-Korver starter trio to open the second and fourth quarters, attempting to stack up a solid lineup against the LeBron-led small Cavs bench unit featuring Channing Frye or Love at center and James at power forward, and had much more success than Detroit’s bench mobs did against these lineups. The Hawks also defended pick-and-roll action with James as the screener with some savvy ploys, including frequently dropping under picks to cut off LeBron’s avenues to the hoop that have been so deadly of late. There are natural counters here for Cleveland, though, and if they can find them it may unclog some of the more stagnant periods they had in Game 1.
Shooting should even out on both ends of the spectrum for both teams, but it feels like the Cavs only reached their top gear for a few minutes in this one while the Hawks may not have much more of a ceiling to find. Cleveland shouldn’t change much defensively – continue to go under most screens and dare the Hawks to beat them with pull-up shots. Atlanta is clearly confident shooting these looks, more prepared this time around, but that won’t change the math enough to stop it from being the right strategy for Cleveland with only a couple true gravity-inducing floor-spacers on the court for the Hawks – one of whom, Kyle Korver, was held to just a single field goal attempt in nearly 37 minutes.
A bit more focus from a Cavs team that was sloppy at times should make Game 2 an easier proposition, barring another shooting explosion from someone in an Atlanta uniform. That can happen on Cleveland’s end too, though, and it feels a bit more likely.
Game 2 Prediction: The Cavaliers win, protecting their home court.
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