Clean Sweep? That’s not what happened last year when the Cleveland Cavaliers went 4-for-4 against our Atlanta Hawks. No, that was more of a Dirty Sweep. Thankfully, no Hawks were harmed in the making of this year’s Game 1 victory for Cleveland, where the Cavs had to pull away from late-charging Atlanta in the final five minutes.
Still, the Hawks teased just enough to show they, in turn, could make a clean getaway from the Cavs in Game 2 tonight at The Q (8:00 PM Eastern, 92.9 FM IN ATL, TNT). And they may have to do just that, unless they have designs on somehow turning a ten-game playoff losing skid against LeBron James into a four-game winning streak.
Stealing Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals will require an Atlanta All-eged-Star (take your pick, from either of the past two years) showing up and making a positive impact from the jump. Offensive contributions in Game 1 from Al Horford (4-for-12 2FGs, six defensive rebounds), Paul Millsap (6-for-16 2FGs, five D-Rebs), and Jeff Teague (2-for-9 FGs, four assists) came too little, too late. The perimeter defense from the rested Cavs was pretty good, but I’m afraid Kyle Korver (37 minutes, 0-for-1 FGs, five D-Rebs) took the rap, “You only get ONE shot,” a tad too seriously.
The Hawks’ so-called Veteran Leadership treating Game 1 like it was Veterans’ Day had the effect of overtaxing Atlanta’s roleplaying forward Kent Bazemore (3-for-10 3FGs, eight D-Rebs, -14 plus/minus), who had quite enough on his plate as it was, and supersub guard Dennis Schröder (career-high 27 points in 28 minutes, 5-for-10 3FGs, team-high six assists). The Cavaliers defense bore down and made The Other Guys beat them, and with a tad more energy, Schröder, Bazemore and Atlanta’s supporting cast almost did.
We’ll never know if Dennis’ weekend was spent catching up on ultra-lounge business, but in any case, once he grew fatigued in the closing minutes of the game, and the unforced errors from he and Bazemore appeared, there was no help from the vets coming. They had long since hung those two out to dry.
Atlanta loves to fail spectacularly at capitalizing on advantages handed to them on a platter. Millsap finds himself isolated on Matthew Dellavedova, and lofts a clunky mid-range jumper. Bazemore finds himself within dunking range, and elects to kick it out for a failed three-point attempt. Korver finds himself under the basket for a layup, and decides to see if anyone else wants to try their hand at three-point shooting. But maybe the worst were those moments when James was out of the picture.
The Cavs’ star exits late in the opening quarter with his team up by 7, and by the time he returns to start the next quarter, the lead has widened to 11. James crumbles to the floor in an opera-worthy flop after missing a bunny with his team up 8, with under two minutes to go. But in the ensuing 17 seconds of 5-on-4 ball, the Hawks don’t take the ball anywhere near the hoop, settling for two hurried 3-point clankers and a loose ball foul on Horford. The ensuing free throws from Kevin Love (1-for-8 2FGs) capped off a 10-0 run for the Cavs (a run that included LeBron’s first, and only, free throw of the game) after Schröder and Bazemore helped the Hawks claw back in front three minutes earlier.
J.R. Smith’s well-contested three-pointers only feel like six-pointers because the Hawks (10-for-33 3FGs, discounting Lamar Patterson’s garbage-time conversion) fail to convert on wide open shots no matter where they’re taken on the floor. Consistent with the regular season, Atlanta’s 16.6 wide-open 3-point attempts are 3.1 more than the next-highest Playoffs participant (Portland), but they hit only 36.2 3FG% on them, compared with the Cavs’ league-leading 47.4%.
Only Miami (40.5%) converts worse on wide-open two-point shots than the Hawks (44.1 2FG%), compared to Cleveland’s 66.7% (albeit on just 3.6 attempts per game), again an NBA-best. While Atlanta was shooting blanks from point-blank, well-defended or otherwise, “Who Shot? J.R.” was 4-for-4 in Game 1 on threes with a Hawks defender no more than four feet away from him.
To keep Smith from just loitering around the perimeters awaiting his next big play, the Hawks need to find a player, whether it’s Bazemore or Junior Hardaway, capable of driving to the hole off the dribble and forcing Smith to defend from his heels. The same applies when Richard Jefferson (2-for-2 3FGs) is in the contest.
If Atlanta takes care of their own business in the opening half (5-for-14 first-quarter FGs in-the-paint in Game 1, 2-for-10 in the second quarter), the energy expended just to climb out from 18-point holes and hang on when it’s heroball time for the James Gang could instead be redirected toward efforts to sustain a more sizable late-game lead.
Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer may have read up too much on the Kardashian Curse, but when teacher’s pet Horford is coughing up furballs, Coach Bud needs to hand him a Dunce Cap and throw lightly-used Kris Humphries to the head of the class for awhile. Going small worked fine against Boston, yet it makes rebounding look like child’s play for Tristan Thompson (7 offensive rebounds).
Cleveland’s 11 points scored by result of offensive rebounds proved to be decisive in Game 1, while the Hawks were just 4-for-12 on shots following their own offensive rebounds, many of those attempted on putbacks by Millsap (8 O-Rebs). Atlanta’s bigs turning contact, particularly from Love and Thompson, into And-1s would press Cleveland’s less-trusted Timofey Mozgov into much more than spot duty.
The Cavs’ spaced the floor more effectively than Atlanta in Game 1, while the Hawks failed to force turnovers and score at the other end. As another example of too little, too late, two minutes elapsed into the second half before the Hawks created a player turnover and converted it into points. Allowing Kyrie Irving (3-fot-5 3FGs, 8 assists, 2 TOs in Game 1) carte blanche to execute desirable plays works decidedly against the Hawks’ best interests. Atlanta needs to pursue more deflections of passes issued by James (5 of 9 assists in the first quarter of Game 1) and Irving in Game 2, and must put forth a better effort to collect loose balls.
Despite Atlanta’s flaws, Cleveland is discovering it’s a little harder to mop the floor with this year’s healthier edition of the Hawks. Atlanta has a greater set of adjustments it can make to affect the outcome in its favor in Game 2. But what ultimately matters is the Hawks’ awareness of which adjustments to make, and their willingness to make them when they’re advantageous. Otherwise, Game 2 could simply be another case of Wash, Rinse, Repeat.
Let’s Go Hawks!