By Matt Winkeljohn, for NBA.com
Posted May 11 2009 4:11PM
ATLANTA -- You might think you found something unique to say in analyzing the Cavaliers' second-round Playoff series against the Hawks, a match-up Cleveland has so dominated that the Cavs have outscored the Hawks by 62 points in taking a 3-0 lead after Saturday night's 97-82 win.
But you'd have a hard time really and truly convincing yourself you were right.
As hard as you might want to try to parry the suggestion that the Cavs may be peaking too early in the post season, or argue that they might need a good dose of adversity -- or at least some competition -- to gird themselves for what likes like a one-way ticket to the Finals, you get distracted.
LeBron James can do that.
This series might be about as engaging as watching paint dry. But watching the NBA's MVP drop 47 points even as the Hawks tried desperately at times to slow him only to have their star player report later that he's embarrassed (as the Hawks' Joe Johnson said Saturday) brings another painting to mind.
If you've ever stood in the Sistine Chapel, craned your neck and looked up at the work of Michaelangelo, specifically the panel depicting a finger of God nearly touching that of Adam so as to give him life, you have a head start.
If you also watched James make 15 of 25 shots, including 5 of 10 3-pointers to finish one point shy of his own Cavs' franchise post season scoring record, and you also heard him after the game in Philips Arena, then you'd be ready to scrap the peaking-too-early "nonsense," as Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas referred to it.
"It's unexplainable," James said of his vibe Saturday. "There's only a few guys in the league that can get into a zone like that. I'm blessed; I thank the Man above for giving me the ability to be one of those guys to get into that zone. You just feel like you can make pretty much any shot that you take."
The Hawks showed up in earnest Saturday after two dreadful games in Cleveland, and all their components were in uniform, too.
Marvin Williams (wrist) may not have been in mid-season form, but he gave the Hawks 13 semi-bonafide minutes (four points, two assists).
Al Horford (ankle) may not have been as aggressive as when fully healed, as his modest four rebounds would attest, but he was there with four assists and six points
And Joe Johnson (ankle), didn't look like the guy shown on television late in Game 2 being pushed around in a wheelchair. He scored 21 points, and flashed All-Star form for perhaps just the second time in 10 Playoff games this season.
Throw in 17 points from reserve guard Flip Murray, a frenzied crowd, and the Hawks not only pushed the Cavs, but blitzed their way to a 63-62 lead with a 13-0 run in the third quarter. Philips Arena was freaking. Murray was sizzling, the home team was locking down the paint, and Cleveland coach Mike Brown called a timeout.
And then James started spray-painting the Hawks as if he was pasting graffiti.
The teams traded buckets after that timeout with 4:18 left in the third quarter, and then the Hawks went scoreless over the final 3:45 of the period while the Cavs closed with an 8-0 burst.
Johnson scored on a short jumper early in the fourth to cut the Cavs' lead to 72-67, but the Hawks would never again be as close as five points.
James scored 13 points in the fourth quarter, grabbing five of his game-high 12 rebounds in that period. He and frontcourt mates Anderson Varejao and Ilgauskas out-rebounded the Atlanta starting frontcourt 12-2 in a quarter where Cleveland whipped Atlanta 18-2 on the glass.
If this was the Hawks' best chance to win a game, as the desperation of knowing that no NBA team has ever overcome a 3-0 deficit in the Playoffs was not yet hanging over their heads, then the Hawks are . . . well, the lights are not out, but Atlanta's power grid is snapping, crackling and popping.
"It's bad that we come out and play the way that we did, and not even play with any pride or sense of urgency," said Johnson, who was matched frequently against James on both offense and defense. "It's embarassing, to be honest. You never know which Hawks team is going to show up."
The Hawks were within 47-46 by halftime in Game 3, chiefly because they turned the ball over just twice in the first half and forward Josh Smith snapped to life with 12 points on 5 of 9 shooting.
That changed in the second half, when the Cavs turned their defensive attention up on Atlanta's three primary threats, forcing both of Johnson's turnovers, Smith's only turnover and 3 of 9 shooting, and point guard Mike Bibby into both of his turnovers and 1 of 4 shooting.
And James, who scored 25 points -- half his team's total -- after intermission, was the problem. Nothing new there. He's scored 108 points in 108 minutes of playing time in the series.
"When it's all said and done, and you look back on this game, there are two things that stand out: we defended . . . and what an MVP performance by LeBron James," said Cleveland coach Mike Brown, whose team is 7-0 in the postseason with nary a single tight game after a first-round sweep of the Pistons. "We kind of threw our offense out the window in the second half, and said, 'Hey, big fella; take us home.' And he did. That's the luxury of having an MVP, a quality player like LeBron."
The Lakers' Kobe Bryant may be loving the fact his team is getting a test from Houston after last year's "cakewalk" to the Finals did not prepare his squad for the gut-punch the Celtics would deliver in Game 4, when Boston erased a huge deficit to win in Los Angeles. Bryant, at least, said as much after the Rockets beat his team in Game 1 this week.
But Ilgauskas is having none of this theory about battle-testing.
"A bunch of nonsense," he said after scoring 14 points with eight rebounds (or more than every Hawk yet the same number or fewer than three of his teammates). "Players and coaches want to win every game. Nobody wants to lose anything. If you have a choice, you'd prefer sweeps all the way through the Finals. If you hear anything else from a player or a coach, you're hearing a lie."
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