By Matt Winkeljohn, for NBA.com
Posted May 12 2009 6:35AM
ATLANTA -- The Cavaliers were finally off their game Monday night, mortals after blitzing to seven straight post-season wins by double digits.
But we learned, if we didn't suspect it already, that they're really all X-men after all. The Cavs seem blessed with a collective intangible.
The more they play -- even in a less-than-picturesque 84-74 win over the Hawks that gave them their second straight series sweep -- the better they look because of a couple things they lack: out-of-control egos, and attention deficit disorder.
Cleveland became the first NBA team to sweep first and second-round series since Miami brushed aside New Jersey and Washington in 2005 (only to lose to Detroit in seven games in the Eastern Finals). But they don't have the look or sound of a team about to beat its own chest in triumph.
Some presumptive favorites, like the Lakers, are wont to show up and expect to win by virtue of their mere presence or the name on their jersey.
One day after the Lakers never checked into a game in Houston, the Cavs illustrated the difference between playing poorly (at least on offense) yet playing hard and with resilience versus playing poorly and with a sense of entitlement.
The Cavs have presence of another kind, a sense of urgency that rarely if ever seems unbridled. Their utter control of themselves, their ability to remain in the moment, may be their greatest asset of all. Even greater than Mr. LeBron James.
Yet he has a plenty to do with this.
That was him in huddles, during dead-ball situations, even early in the game when the Cavs were fussing about the officiating, telling his teammates to, well, shut-up and stay in the present.
"It's one of the things that we preach," said Cavs coach Mike Brown, whose team started slow Monday. "Hey, we don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves. We literally want to take baby steps. It's a marathon so it's one day, one game, one practice, one shoot-around, one possession at a time.
"If we really believe that, and stay in the present, then your mind, in my opinion, doesn't get cloudy. You don't get too far ahead, and it makes you, in my opinion, focus that much harder on that possession. Like I said before, it's great when your leader, your superstar does it."
James scored a game-high 27 points in Philips Arena, but needed 22 shots (making nine) to get there.
Brown spoke of the beauty of winning ugly, and with good reason. The visitors had to muck their way Monday, trailing at the end of the first quarter for the first time in the series (22-15 after turning the ball over six times).
They complained a bit, then overcame. "We felt like they weren't letting us play as physical as we wanted, and we was crying a little bit too much," said guard Mo Williams, who made just 4 of 13 shots for 12 points. "We just decided to play ball and don't worry about the refs."
By halftime, Atlanta trailed 40-38 in large measure because the Hawks made just 4 of 18 shots in the second quarter.
This game showed that Cleveland has frailties:
* Their offense can spin its wheels as if on treadless tires if James is off-kilter -- witness 40 missed shots.
* Pressure defense might, on occasion, leave them scrambling -- witness their 18 turnovers.
* Feisty as their bigs are, the Cavs may be vulnerable to athleticism in the paint -- see the 26 points by Atlanta's Josh Smith.
But they just about always play serious team D.
You limit an opponent to 31.5 percent shooting (the Hawks made just 23 of 73 shots), and romp on the boards (48-33), and you give yourself a fighting chance to win. "The way we defended tonight allowed us to turn the ball over 18 times for 22 points, and allowed us to shoot 53 percent from the free-throw line (14 of 26)," Brown said. "Those are not impressive numbers, but in the playoffs, especially on the road, you have to have an anchor. You have to have a foundation, and our guys have that."
True, the Cavs' chances were better against the battered Hawks. Center Al Horford missed Game 2 with an ankle sprain, and played like it bothered him. He was scoreless, two of his three shots drawing only air. Forward Marvin Williams (wrist) missed Game 2, and his return to the starting lineup produced four points on one of seven shooting. Joe Johnson (18 points), seemed good to go even with a sprained ankle.
Beyond Smith (eight of 16 shooting) and Johnson (seven of 18), the rest of the Hawks made just 8 of 39 shots.
Cleveland tied the anchor around the neck of Atlanta point guard Mike Bibby, limiting him to 1-for-6 shooting, three points and one assist.
You want energy and activity? The Hawks' starting front court totaled 15 rebounds (eight by Smith, four by Williams, three by Horford). In Cleveland's front court, Anderson Varejao had 11, Zydrunas Ilgauskas 10 and James 8 for a total of 29.
Toughness? How about Cavs shooting guard Delonte West, whom Brown said, "I'm playing a mess," scoring 21 points with six assists and four rebounds in nearly 45 minutes?
The Hawks were feisty, though, and pulled within 76-72 when Flip Murray made a pair of free throws with 2:21 left in the game.
Then, the far scrappier team won out.
James bulled his way to the basket for a three-point play, drawing a foul from reserve center Zaza Pachulia.
Johnson made two free throws to cut the Cleveland lead to 79-74 with 1:56 left in the game, and then the possession(s) of the game unfurled, the essence of the Cavs' personality bubbling to the top. A 64-second Cavs possession -- and score -- finished off the Hawks.
Varejao kept alive a missed drive by James, and took his sixth offensive rebound with 1:37 to go. Cleveland used all of a new shot clock, and James missed another short shot. Varejao took his eighth offensive rebound with 1:12 left. He missed his putback attempt, but Ilgauskas grabbed his fifth offensive rebound.
The Cavs' two primary big men, Varejao and Ilgauskas, combined for 12 offensive boards. The Hawks as a team had nine.
And finally, James swung the ball to Williams. With 52 seconds left -- Swish! From 3-point territory, Williams gave the Cavs an 82-74 lead.
Game over, persistence -- and, for the rest of the NBA, pestilence -- continued.
"We take one game at a time. We prepare like it's our last game," said Ilgauskas. "We pay attention to details. If somebody is slacking off, we don't need coaches; we police ourselves."
LeBron made noise in a different way Monday. So many times you could see him barking orders, keeping his teammates in the moment.
"It comes from our leader, LeBron, no question," said Wally Szerbiak. "That's something we've prided ourselves on all year. We feel like our abilities will take over . . . but we haven't achieved anything yet."
James said, "We do not take for granted what we're doing right now."
It's more obvious by the game. Nevermind crowd noise; James, and Brown ring in the ears of the Cavs.
"We talked about that in the locker room," said Cleveland veteran Joe Smith. "No matter who was on the floor, no matter what type of situation we're in, we're continually trying to get better even at this time of the season. It starts with our leader, LeBron. He just always tells us, 'Don't be satisfied with what we've done because we really haven't done anything yet.' "
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