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Cavs demonstrate versatility in Game 2 blowout of Hawks

Cleveland rains a record 25 triples in a 123-98 romp for a 2-0 series lead, but LeBron James insists, 'We're not a 3-point-shooting team'

POSTED: May 5, 2016 10:48 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


— Someone wanted to know what the Cleveland Cavaliers' backup plan was Wednesday night.

Kyrie Irving looked like he wasn't sure if the guy was being serious or not. "I don't know what you mean, 'backup plan,' " the Cavaliers point guard said.

Oh, c'mon, surely Irving did. Y'know, nudge nudge, the backup plan that coach Tyronn Lue and his staff cooked up and held in reserve in a sealed envelope over by the bench. Just on the off chance that maybe the Cavaliers wouldn't set an NBA record Wednesday night by making 25 3-pointers, 18 of them in the first half, against the Atlanta Hawks at Quicken Loans Arena.

Obviously that was Plan A: Hit more 3-pointers than any previous team ever, not just in the playoffs but -- the big kahuna -- in NBA history, or at least since the league introduced the rule in 1979-80. Blow open Game 2 of the teams' Eastern Conference semifinals series early -- the Cavs led by 15 after one quarter, 36 after two and 41 a few minutes into the third en route to a 123-98 victory. And see if maybe the Hawks, down 2-0 in the best-of-seven set, might want tap out before everything shifts to Atlanta for the next two.

Plan B? Uh, maybe play exactly the same way but cope with the possibility that they might not make 25 of the 45 3-point shots they launched?

The thing is, that's sort of the Cavaliers' plan every night. They rank atop of the league's 2016 playoff stats board for 3-pointers made (97) and, at 16.2 per game, that's a considerable jump from the 10.7 Cleveland averaged in the regular season. They're taking more too, but not exorbitantly so: 35.7 attempts in the six postseason games so far compared to 29.6 through the first 82.

Cavs' Record Setting Shooting

The Cavaliers set a new NBA record with 25 3-pointers in a game, playoffs or regular season.

What's different now is that the Cavaliers are playing their best basketball of the season, finely tuned and tightly honed, more than three months and 47 games after Lue was promoted into fired coach David Blatt's job. And the opposition in these two rounds, the Detroit Pistons and the Hawks, have played paint-first defense in hopes of discouraging or limiting LeBron James' rushes to the rim.

Sticking with the take-what-they-give-you approach, Cleveland got the ball into its perimeter shooters' hands, either by swinging it around the arc or relying on James or Irving to penetrate and kick.

Those hands just happened to be smoking. If the Cavs had shot those 45 threes with their typical accuracy (36.3 percent), they would have scored 27 fewer points.

"It was beautiful to watch," Lue said. "I thought we made the right play and we made the right pass. The ball moved and guys got their shots. ... For the last month and a half, this is pretty much how we've been playing."

It seemed important to James that people understood the NBA's record for 3-pointers in a game was set by a team that shall not be known for shooting 3-pointers. He was pretty adamant about that.

We're not a 3-point-shooting team. We don't want to be labeled that. We're a well-balanced team that's capable of making threes. We have designated snipers if we need 'em.

– LeBron James

"I don't think that's us," said the Cavs star, who finished with 27 points in a mere 28 minutes and chipped in four of the 25 triples. Irving also hit four, Kevin Love had three and seven other Cleveland players made at least one, led by J.R. Smith's 7-for-13 from the arc.

"Obviously we've got guys that can knock down shots from the perimeter," James said. "It's been key to our success. But we have to continue to understand we have to be very balanced offensively.

"Tonight [it] was just a byproduct. If you look at a lot of the threes that were made and a lot of the threes that were taken, the ball was getting to the paint first. Then it was spraying out.

"We're not a 3-point-shooting team. We don't want to be labeled that. We're a well-balanced team that's capable of making threes. We have designated snipers if we need 'em."

None more than Smith, the only Cavalier who has what James called an "ultra-green light" to fire at will from whatever range suits him. "It's like fluorescent," James said while seated next to Smith at the postgame podium. "Coach says, 'Hey, J.R., shoot it. Shoot it, shoot it, shoot it.' "

Hawks-Cavaliers Game 3 Preview

The GameTime guys preview the Game 3 showdown between the Hawks and Cavaliers.

And generally, Smith has let one fly by the time Lue gets to the "J" in "J.R." He had all seven of his threes in the first half and is hitting 52.8 percent from out there this postseason (28 for 53).

Smith was mentioned by Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer as the third of four pieces of or layers to Cleveland's uncanny 3-point shooting Wednesday. The other three: the Cavaliers' transition game that sent them rushing downcourt to find shooters around the arc, extra passes in halfcourt situations to find open men and 12 offensive rebounds that sucked in Atlanta's defenders but couldn't stop the ball from then kicking to the outside.

Four circles of hell was more like it for the Hawks and their coach. They'll have home court at Philips Arena working for them in Games 3 and 4 this weekend, but their defense has been fully stressed by Cleveland's multiple weapons and they're outgunned at the other end.

Honestly, as the Hawks tried to keep pace in the first half scoring by ones and twos to the Cavaliers' threes, they seemed downright quaint. Atlanta wound up 11-for-27 from the arc after extensive garbage time but was an anemic 2-for-11 in the first half, when it mattered.

Within the Cavs' way-deep prowess Wednesday was the quirk that, to go with their 25 threes, they had only 16 two-point baskets. In the first half, the ratio was 18 to six. There were moments at The Q, with the crowd savoring every one of their team's long balls, when it felt like MLB's home run-apalooza from back in 1998.

It's tough to put into words. Tonight was one of those nights where you sit back and shake your head. That differential between twos and threes, that's kind of where the game's headed.

– Kevin Love

Basketball on steroids, not in a chemical sense but stylistically? We can't be that far from analytics perfection, when a team shoots and scores nothing but 3-pointers and doesn't mess around with a single 2-pointer.

"It's tough to put into words," Love said. "Tonight was one of those nights where you sit back and shake your head. That differential between twos and threes, that's kind of where the game's headed. Especially because you see 'four' and 'five' men stepping out and shooting threes now. The center position being kind of a lost art.

"I don't know if we'll see an all-three [point] boxscores, but tonight was definitely one of those nights."

Defenses are scrambling to keep up with a game that, offensively, deserves a Moore's Law, that observation from the tech world that claims computing power doubles every two years. Threes are raining at a torrential rate, with Cleveland tying the old playoff record (20), seeing it broken (21 by Golden State) and now shattering all the established marks, in a span of less than three weeks.

James talked of the evolution. "You look at the history of the league, the league has changed and you have to kind of go with the flow," he said. "In the '80s, '90s, it was big men. If you didn't have a true big center or power forward, it was going to be very difficult for you to win.

"Now in the 2000s and especially the last few years, it's been dominated by the smalls. Our league is point guard-driven."

Golden State, in winning the 2015 championship and posting its 73-9 record this season, made it OK for many in the game to embrace unbridled offense. With a qualifier, James said.

"I think what gets lost is their ability to have multiple guys on the floor who can do multiple things. Their personnel fits," James said. "You don't want to be just a jump-shooting team. We don't want to be a paint team. We want to be well-balanced."

Not to worry, that's what the Cavs were. They hit threes from the right wing, threes from the left, threes from this corner and threes from that, with the whole attack in balance thanks to some threes from out top.

Pretty good plan, no backup necessary.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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