By MICHAEL DAY
The play-making wizardry of Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, along with the defensive block of the game by Tristan Thompson, propelled the Cleveland Cavaliers to 100-99 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, completing the series sweep.
The game did not start out well for the visiting team, though. Atlanta, fueled by the aggressiveness of Paul Millsap, jumped out to an early lead as the Cavaliers were forced to sit Tristan Thompson due to early foul trouble. With Thompson on the bench, Atlanta’s offense found success by funneling everything through Millsap. He was able to take advantage of the other defenders guarding him, namely, Richard Jefferson, by either scoring or passing to open teammates. Millsap was practically unstoppable.
The Cavaliers were able to gain ground on the Hawks’ initial lead by first, slowing Millsap down by forcing him to give the ball up faster to players in less effective scoring positions on the court, and next, by unleashing Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. If anyone was wondering how the Cavaliers got so many wide-open three-point shots against Atlanta in earlier games, well, the answer is that Kyrie and LeBron James create too many mismatches for the defense to deal with, and this creates wide open spaces on the court for open three-point shooters. It sounds simple, right? Sometimes, the simple things are the most beautiful, and witnessing the mastery of those two players run the pick-and-roll offense was worth the price of admission, expensive hotdogs, the ear-splitting PA system, and the game-day traffic.
They each broke down Atlanta’s defense but used different methods. Kyrie would read the pick-and-roll, beat his defender off the dribble with slick ball handling and quick lateral movement. When defenders tried to trap him, he either beat them with a little stutter-step and traditional cross-over move, or he did the same stutter-step move but dribbled behind his back to achieve the same results. It really was incredible. LeBron, on the other hand, used superior athleticism and physical size to inflict pain upon the opposing defense. The typical LeBron play featured the old-school, back the defender down to the paint and force the double-team style of basketball, where he could then locate the open three-point shooter and execute a thread-the-needle pass to the open teammate. LeBron, the facilitator, was on full display. When defenders crowded LeBron, he was able to get around the defender with a quick first step. Once this happened, it was over for the defense, because LeBron with momentum on his side is not something any defender wants to deal with.
Atlanta responded by trying to switch the pick-and-roll, but this left a bigger defender on Kyrie and a smaller defender on the screener, which most of the time was either Kevin Love or LeBron. Either way, it was a bad situation for Atlanta. The following scenarios occurred: Kyrie breaks down the bigger defender and finds wide-open three-point shooter, Kyrie passes to Kevin Love and Kevin love backs in and scores on the smaller defender, or he draws the double-team and passes to a wide-open three-point shooter. Replace Kevin Love with LeBron as the screener and get the same outcome.
With Atlanta’s defense stretched thin, leaving too many open three-point shooters too many times, It was only a matter of when Cleveland would take the lead, and they did after Kevin Love hit four three-point shots in a row. He definitely found the shooter’s touch this game. Also, while Kevin Love is not a great defender, he played tough defense down in the paint against players like Millsap and Al Horford who can get the job done in that area. Kevin Love turned in a great performance.
Atlanta fought back to actually retake the lead on Dennis Schroder’s layup with 1:31 left in the game as Cleveland had their own issues trying to contain the Schroder-Millsap pick-and-roll in the fourth quarter, but the difference was that Schroder and Millsap’s main scoring options were in the paint where Thompson could alter shots, and this would prove fatal. Atlanta’s outside three-point-shooting failed them: Horford, 1-5, Kent Bazemore, 1-7, Kyle Korver, 0-2, Millsap 1-4.
The deciding plays of the game that tipped the outcome to Cleveland started after LeBron James’ goal-tended layup attempt put Cleveland ahead 98-97. Unfortunately for Atlanta, even though Schroder was able to consistently beat his man off the dribble, his best option was to score in the paint, which as mentioned before was difficult with Thompson in the game, and it just so happened that after a timeout before Atlanta’s next possession started, Cleveland inserted Thompson into the game. Schroder beat his man, but Thompson made a crucial defensive play by blocking his layup attempt, preserving Cleveland’s lead. On Cleveland’s next possession, LeBron James made a long two point shot as the shot clock was winding down – no ball movement, just a pure isolation play and the kind of shot a superstar makes. This put Cleveland up 100-97 with 39 seconds left in the game. As it turned out, this was the game-winning shot. Schroder made good on his layup this time to bring Atlanta to within one, 100-99. For Cleveland’s last possession, LeBron tried to score off another isolation play where there was no ball movement, but he missed a three-point shot, which looked like an awful decision at the time, because this was a low percentage shot and Atlanta had enough time to score. Fortunately for LeBron, he and Thompson were able to stop Schroder’s drive to the basket. Once LeBron forced a jump ball, the outcome was practically sealed. LeBron predictably won the jump ball, and the game was over – another sweep of Atlanta for Cleveland.