LeBron's 47-12-8 Masterpiece Puts Cavs on Brink of Sweeping HawksLeBron James had 47 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists as the Cleveland Cavaliers took Atlanta's best punch and then delivered a knockout blow with a 97-82 victory to take a 3-0 series lead. James and Michael Jordan are the only players in NBA playoff history to post at least 45-10-8 in a game. Cleveland's formula for success is defense, rebounding, depth and James' brilliance. In this road game the Cavs' shortened their rotation--including having James play significant fourth quarter minutes for the first time in this series--so depth was not a factor but the Cavs held Atlanta to just two field goals over a 10 minute second half stretch during which Cleveland took over the game with a 20-4 run; James scored 12 points during that game-deciding outburst. The Cavs outrebounded the Hawks 46-23 as they became the first team in NBA playoff history to win seven straight games by double figure margins and moved to within one win of posting back to back 4-0 sweeps; the 2004-05 Miami Heat were the last team to open the NBA playoffs by sweeping the first two rounds 4-0, while the 2000-01 L.A. Lakers swept the first three rounds when the first round was still a best of five series.
Joe Johnson came back from the sprained ankle he suffered in game two to lead the Hawks with 21 points. Josh Smith scored 18 points, while Flip Murray provided a spark off of the bench with 17 points.
The Hawks led by as many as six points in this contest and were ahead as late as the 3:45 mark of the third quarter but ultimately they had no defensive answer for James and no consistent method of scoring in the half court set. I predicted before this series that the Hawks might use their transition game to go on an 8-0 or 10-0 run but that overall they would have great difficulty scoring more than 85 points versus Cleveland's stifling defense and they would likely endure some long scoring droughts; all of those predictions came true in this game: the Hawks failed to score 85 points, they suffered the long scoring drought documented above and they had one 13-0 run in the third quarter fueled by their transition game.
Mike Bibby must look like a green traffic signal to the Cavs, because whoever he is guarding speeds right past him like he is standing still at an intersection. The Hawks elected to defend James by simply switching all screen/roll plays without double-teaming, so the Cavs repeatedly involved Bibby in this action and then had James attack Bibby. At one point while Bibby faced off against James on the wing the Atlanta point guard frantically signaled for a teammate to come over and help him; help never arrived and James easily scored. ABC's Hubie Brown said of James, "It's just so great. He's such a cerebral player. What he does is he reads the defense perfectly. He knows what you're doing. If you are going to switch and have a small guy on me then I'll just shoot and play horse in my driveway." Although the Hawks' strategy does not look great on paper, there really are not many good choices for them: James shot 5-10 from three point range and if they try to trap him that far from the hoop then he will pick them apart with his passing. Also, even though the Cavs' depth was not a factor in terms of tangible production in this game I think that it played a role in Atlanta's defensive scheme; the Hawks elected not to leave Cleveland's shooters open by trapping James all over the court but James made them pay by hitting shots from all angles.
When Julius Erving was in his prime in the ABA, his New York Nets Coach Kevin Loughery once called a timeout just to tell Erving that Erving had just played the best stretch of basketball that Loughery had ever seen, strong words coming from an 11 year NBA veteran who had played with and against stars like Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Walt Frazier, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wes Unseld and Earl Monroe. Watching James pick the Hawks apart not just with his physical skills but, as Hubie Brown noted, the "cerebral" game, I felt like someone should call a timeout just to give everyone a minute to catch their breath and try to grasp just how well James is playing.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:54 AM