Atlanta shows spunk in comeback attempt, but Cavs' savvy prevails
POSTED: May 3, 2016 12:57 AM ET
Hawks vs. Cavaliers: Game 1
LeBron James heats up for 25 points with 9 assists as the Cavaliers take Game 1 over the Hawks, 104-93.
CLEVELAND — Right now, the Atlanta Hawks are the Detroit Pistons. No more, no less.
Whatever encouragement they derived from their Game 1 showing against the Cleveland Cavaliers Monday in their Eastern Conference semifinal -- and they talked about deriving quite a bit, particularly from a second-half comeback in which they roared from 18 points down to one up -- it's worth next to nothing if they can't find a way to turn "close" into a victory and "victory" into a series.
The Pistons were encouraged, too, facing the Cavaliers way back in April in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. For three of the teams' four games, Detroit hung around, made the Cavaliers uncomfortable, had chances to push ahead ... and walked off night after night with nothing but some atta-boy points as balm for the sweep.
Stan Van Gundy's crew, at least, was taking playoff lumps and building springtime callouses by design. They were newbies to this postseason tournament business, several years behind the Hawks in timeline and expectations. They'll be back, better for their failures next time.
By contrast, when Atlanta forward Kent Bazemore spoke optimistically after Monday's 104-93 defeat about his team's "growing pains," it came across as kind of coddling and thus a little embarrassing, considering how much older, more experienced, presumably savvier and even saltier the Hawks are than the precocious Pistons.
Growing pains? This Atlanta team is closer to its end than its beginning. All on-the-job training was to have taken place last year, when the then-No. 1 seeded Hawks got unceremoniously run out in four games by LeBron James and a less formidable Cavaliers roster.
LeBron Goes Off
LeBron James grabs 25 points with 9 assists in the Cavaliers win over the Hawks.
Growing pains? The Game 1 loss makes it eight defeats in a row for Atlanta against the Cavaliers, including last year's East finals and three regular-season meetings in 2015-16. That's a fair amount of pain with very little growth. And no indication of real learning, based on the teams' late-game execution.
The Hawks showed pluck in planting their heels at 72-54 with 3:56 left in the third quarter, the whole affair about to tilt severely out of control like what had gone on in the openers out West over the weekend. They used guard Dennis Schröder's ability to hit shots when Cleveland defenders went under screens, alternated nicely with Schröder's slithery drives inside as the basis for a 16-2 close to the third quarter.
That's when Cleveland's poise saw-and-raised Atlanta's pluck. The Cavaliers went with what works, what they've honed and grooved and made their own through two long seasons and a run to last year's Finals. First J.R Smith looped around the floor one step ahead of defender Kyle Korver for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. Then Kevin Love, on a 4-of-17 shooting night, snookered Bazemore into the air for contact in the right corner, and by hitting two of three foul shots had Cleveland up 92-88.
Next came the backbreaker, as far as Atlanta's chances were concerned. Out of a Hawks timeout, with James chasing and denying Korver, Schröder lost the ball in traffic at 3:11. Exactly 62 seconds later, James veered into the lane at the opposite end, absorbed some contact and hit a layup. His free throw that followed make it 95-88 with 2:09 left.
In between Schröder's turnover and James' and-1, J.R. Smith had missed a pull-up jumper and James missed from 16 feet. But Tristan Thompson and then Smith ran down the rebounds.
That extended the possession. Kept pressure on the Hawks to defend, again and again. And chewed up clock -- 62 agonizingly long seconds no longer available to Atlanta, even if it had been able to muster any consistent offense from that point.
Schroder Scores Playoff High
Dennis Schroder goes off for a playoff career-high 27 points in the Hawks loss.
"They hurt," Bazemore said of the rebounds. "Thompson killed us last year by getting them second opportunities. When a team is good, [giving them] two or three cracks at a bucket, they hurt. It's definitely frustrating on your end. Sometimes you're boxing 'em out, doing a good job, but the ball bounces a different way and it bounces right into another guy's hands. You've got to weather those things."
Bazemore had soared high for an offensive board a little earlier, catching James flat-footed -- a James Harden moment, social media cackled -- to turn Paul Millsap's missed 3-pointer into a reset and Millsap layup. Everybody knows the impact of those things. Cleveland just flexed them when they mattered most.
Against Atlanta in last year's playoffs, Thompson claimed 17 offensive rebounds in four games -- the entire Hawks roster grabbed 27. He had five in the second half Monday.
"Against the Hawks, in terms of Millsap and Horford, we are kind of the same 'active' bigs," Thompson said. "For me, it's just staying relentless on the glass. ... As the third quarter and fourth quarter hits, that's when I try to use my technique to create second-chance opportunities for my teammates."
Said James, asked if Thompson's contributions are similar to what Dennis Rodman gave the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls: "What Dennis did for the Bulls on the floor -- let's make sure we know that part -- 'Double-T' does for our team."
Cleveland wound up finishing the game with a 17-5 advantage over the final 3:32 but it didn't really qualify as a "run." It was more slog than whoosh, a veteran team responding one possession at a time to very deliberately take the game out of the Hawks' hands and place it next to them. The way you would if you caught a kid messing with the power tools.
Atlanta did plenty of things well, getting 27 points from Schröder and 15 offensive rebounds of its own. But it never shook Korver (0-for-1 in 37 minutes) free of the Cavs' game plan. It might have used more Millsap on James when Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha were found wanting. And it couldn't get the defensive rebound it needed most.
Growing pain? Hmm. We know this much: the Hawks' pain is growing.
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