CLEVELAND, Ohio — It was déjà vu for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who swept the overmatched Atlanta Hawks out of the postseason for the second straight year and broke records in the process.
Sunday’s game was tougher, a win that wasn’t decided until the final buzzer. But the story was the same.
The Cavs once again had too much firepower, were able to make the necessary plays in crunch time and came up with key stops when needed. It all added up to a one-point win, 100-99, and a return trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Here are five observations:
Kevin Love bounces back – This is what General Manager David Griffin envisioned when he assembled the league’s most expensive roster. It’s also what LeBron James was craving when he bolted Miami in the summer of 2014.
OK, maybe not early, when Love was misfiring repeatedly and looked lost on the defensive end.
But credit to Love. Borrowing one of head coach Tyronn Lue’s favorite phrases, Love “stayed with it.”
Putting a slow start (three points on 1-of-6 shooting in the first quarter) behind him, Love had his best ever playoff game.
James was the closer. Love was the star.
Aggressive, confident and bursting with emotion, Love scored a game-high 27 points on 9-of-25 from the field, including 8-of-15 from three-point range. The Hawks kept sagging off him, allowing open looks (14 of his 25 shots were uncontested) and Love made them pay, especially during a brilliant third quarter.
Love scored 15 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including 4-of-7 from beyond the arc in the third. That scoring burst had the Hawks defense scrambling and led the Cavs to a four-point edge going into the fourth quarter.
“Kevin Love was on fire,” Kent Bazemore told reporters after the game. “He did exactly what we dared him to do.”
Of course, this is what the Cavs thought they were getting in the summer of 2014 when they traded away promising youngster Andrew Wiggins. It’s why James placed that call to Love, letting him know how much he wanted the versatile power forward to complete James’ newest trio.
James envisioned plowing his way to the basket, drawing the defense and kicking it out to Love, one of the best shooting bigs in the NBA.
That’s what happened on Sunday. The Hawks couldn’t stop it.
Depth on display – Unlike last year’s NBA playoff run when the bulk of the burden was placed on James’ broad and capable shoulders, this surge by the Cavs, eight straight wins to open their title quest, has been defined by balance, depth and teamwork.
Sure, James hit the go-ahead shot, made the game-winning play on the defensive end and won the jump ball. But he had plenty of help from his teammates throughout the four-game sweep and Sunday was no exception.
It wasn’t just Love either.
Kyrie Irving scored 21 points and dished out eight assists. Iman Shumpert reached double figures for the first time since April 1, chipping in with 10 points off the bench, including two big threes in the second quarter, a time when the Cavs were crawling out of a double-digit deficit.
It was a theme of the series.
On Friday, it was Channing Frye’s turn. The team’s leading scorer in Game 3 had 27 points on 10-of-13 from the field, including 7-of-9 from three-point range.
In Game 2, James was the leading scorer, but J.R. Smith’s three-point shooting buried the Hawks quickly. He finished with 23 points, hitting a team-high seven three-pointers, as the Cavs set an NBA record for triples in a game with 25.
Going into the series, the Cavs’ advantage was star power. The Hawks, meanwhile, had to rely on a team approach. But Cleveland showed its much more than just James or a talented Big Three.
Against Atlanta, the Cavs used numbers, someone different stepping up every night, providing plenty of help for James.
That’s something he didn’t have enough of last year.
Millsap stopper – The Hawks’ lone All-Star got off to a terrific start, looking motivated to avoid a second straight sweep against Cavs.
In the first quarter, Millsap scored 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting to go with five rebounds and two assists. More importantly, his aggressiveness, a willingness to attack the basket, put Tristan Thompson in early foul trouble.
The Cavs’ best interior defender picked up two fouls in the first three-plus minutes, heading to the bench for the remainder of the quarter. At that time, Millsap had three points and the Hawks were trailing by five.
Millsap scored 12 of his 15 first quarter points with Thompson on the bench and the Hawks finished the quarter on a 28-14 flurry.
After that fast start, Millsap fizzled, scoring four points on 1-of-6 from the field in the final three quarters. Thompson stayed out of foul trouble and pestered the power forward the same way he did last year and the three other games in the series.
In the last two series against Thompson and the Cavs, Millsap averaged 15.5 points on 37-of-99 (37.3 percent), including 4-of-22 (18.1 percent) from beyond the arc to go with 9.0 rebounds.
In early April, a game played in Atlanta, Lue was asked about Thompson’s dominance against Millsap. Lue didn’t want to ruffle feathers or provide any bulletin board material so he sidestepped the inquiry like a veteran.
But as Thompson walked by and overheard the topic of conversation, he got a big smile on his face. He knew what he did to Millsap and the Hawks in last year’s conference finals.
After this series, there’s enough of a sample size: Thompson’s defense and relentless approach on the boards is too much for Millsap.
Fourth quarter defense – The Cavs’ defense slipped during the second half of the regular season and that has continued in the playoffs, ranking last in opponent’s field goal percentage (46 percent) of the team’s still alive in the playoffs.
The Cavs are reminded of that stat every home game when they walk into the locker room, as the white board, showing those numbers, hangs prominently.
While they still need to get better at that end of the floor, they have locked down opponents when it matters most — in the fourth quarter.
The Cavs are holding foes to a playoff-best 21.6 points on 41.3 percent from the field (4th), including 27.1 percent from three-point range (2nd) in the final 12 minutes.
Cleveland has another goal on defense: Keep teams under 24 points in a quarter.
In the fourth quarters of the conference semis, the Hawks topped that mark once. That was Game 2, as the Cavs played their bottom-of-the-roster players the entire final period.
On Sunday, the Cavs held the Hawks to 22 points and got two stops in the final minute, including Thompson’s blocked shot against a driving Dennis Schroder, which likely impacted Schroder’s final drive when he stopped to fake out Thompson before getting tied up by James.
The timely stops helped. But consistency is the next step.
Slowing Korver – Prior to the series, Lue was reminded of the Cavs’ recent success in slowing down sharpshooter Kyle Korver.
“Don’t do that, man,” he said to a reporter.
He didn’t want to jinx anything, especially with a player as important as Korver.
“We just try to stay glued in on him,” Lue said. “We know he’s dangerous. I think in the last series, his plus/minus when he’s on the floor was +78. When he was off the floor, they were -24. We know how important he is, how important the three-point shot is. He kind of gets them going, making shots in transition and making open three’s.”
Korver tends to be the Hawks’ barometer, which is why James mentioned the importance of always having the “antennas up” when Korver is on the court. Limiting Korver was the focus of the team’s game plan.
In the four games, Korver averaged 7.5 points on 43.5 percent from the field, including 42.9 percent from beyond the arc.
The percentages are good, but dig deeper.
Korver averaged just 5.8 shots per game, including 3.5 per game from three-point range. Seven players averaged more shot attempts than Korver. With J.R. Smith and Shumpert chasing him around, Korver rarely got free looks at the basket. He never found his rhythm.
Sunday’s game helps highlight his struggles, as he scored two points on 1-of-4 from the field. He only had one game against the Cavs with double-digit shot attempts. In the previous series against Boston, he had at least that many in three of the games.