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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cavs Sweep Hawks, Advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the Second Time in Three Years

LeBron James overcame his worst shooting game of this postseason (9-22) to finish with 27 points, eight rebounds and eight assists as the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Atlanta Hawks 84-74 to sweep their second round series. The Cavs are the first team in NBA playoff history to win eight straight games by at least 10 points each and the first team to sweep the first two rounds of the playoffs since the 2005 Miami Heat. Delonte West added 21 points, six assists and four rebounds while hounding three-time All-Star Joe Johnson into a 7-18 shooting night. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a double double (14 points, 10 rebounds) and even though Mo Williams was quiet for most of the game (12 points, five assists) he nailed two clutch three pointers in the final 2:45 and shot 4-7 from three point range overall.

Josh Smith had his best game of the series, leading the Hawks in scoring (26 points) and rebounds (eight) but Atlanta shot just 23-73 (.315) from the field and lost the battle on the boards 48-33. Although Smith shot 8-16 from the field in this game, he shot just .419 from the field in this series--mainly because any shot he takes outside of the paint is an adventure. When your own home crowd gasps and/or boos each time you attempt a jump shot, that is a not so subtle sign that you need to get in the gym this summer and work on your shooting stroke. Johnson (18 points, seven assists, six rebounds) and Flip Murray (14 points) were the only other Hawks who scored in double figures. Starting point guard Mike Bibby scored three points on 1-6 shooting and he had by far the worst plus/minus number (-16) of any player in the game.

Closeout games when one team is leading 3-0 have an interesting psychological dynamic for both teams, particularly when the trailing team is at home. No NBA team has ever won a series after trailing 3-0, so there is always a question of whether or not the trailing team really wants to extend the series only to have to go back on the road for an almost inevitable loss in the next game. On the other hand, it is easy for the leading team to relax and feel like they have the luxury of closing out the series at home. The Cavs did not shoot particularly well in this game but their effort defensively and on the glass clearly shows that they did not take this opportunity for granted or want to fall back on presumably being able to win the next game at home. As for the Hawks, they led 22-15 after the first quarter, so they obviously had the correct mindset; not to overstate this point--pro players and teams should always play hard regardless of the situation--but we all know that some players would at least be tempted to quit: that is why TNT's Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith often joke about players having one foot in Cancun before a game even begins. After the Cavs rallied to take a 48-38 lead deep in the third quarter the Hawks made another run, cutting the margin to 55-53 and keeping the game competitive all the way until the end. That is a good sign for the Hawks' future, because it would give one pause to build a team around players who do not always compete hard.

The Hawks built their first quarter lead by scoring 10 points off of six Cleveland turnovers. As I predicted before the series, overall the Hawks struggled to score against Cleveland but when they got open court opportunities they were able to put together some runs. For most of the series, the Hawks played James straight up and simply switched on screen/roll plays instead of trapping James but James shredded that defensive scheme, culminating in a 47 point outburst in game three. So, in game four the Hawks decided to trap James and force other players to make shots. In the first quarter, the Cavs missed shots and committed turnovers but when James went to the bench in the second quarter the Cavs went on an 11-2 run to take the lead. Cleveland's depth is simply scary: every player can play, every player knows (and accepts) his role and every player works hard defensively. James had a plus/minus rating of +1 in this game, while Williams (+18), Ilgauskas (+10) and Ben Wallace (+10) had double digit plus/minus numbers. Does that mean that those players are more valuable than James? Of course not--but it does indicate just how effective the Cavs can be against a quality team even when James is out of the game and this has been a consistent pattern all year long, with James often being able to sit out most or all of the fourth quarter (though he did play extensive fourth quarter minutes in games three and four of this series).

When it came down to winning time, the Cavs' suffocating defense took over, not allowing a field goal in the final 3:05 and not giving up any points in the final 1:56 (the Cavs only led 79-74 at that time). The Hawks only made four field goals in the entire fourth quarter. James scored six fourth quarter points on a three pointer and a three point play but he really made his impact felt as a playmaker, dishing off for four assists, three of them on three point shots, including the two treys by Williams in the final 2:45; the Hawks dared other Cavs to beat them in game four and that is exactly what happened.

The Cavs had a long break after their first round sweep of Detroit and they will get some more rest for the next few days as they wait to see who will emerge from the Boston-Orlando series that is currently tied 2-2.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:57 AM

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