Cleveland — They trailed by 18 points in Game 1. They trailed by 41 in Game 2. They’ve lost nine games in succession to this opponent over the past 11 months. They’ve lost every playoff game — 10 in all — they’ve worked against LeBron James’ teams. If you’re the Atlanta Hawks …
Stop right there. Let’s rephrase. Be glad you’re not the Atlanta Hawks.
The pragmatist in me knows that the Cleveland Cavaliers have won two home games in this series, which is what a No. 1 seed is supposed to do. But the manner in which they took Wednesday’s Game 2 was so breathtaking that it might have taken more than breath from the underdog Hawks. It might have taken their heart.
The Cavaliers made 18 3-pointers in the first half, 25 all told. (Both were NBA records, and not just in a playoff game. In any game ever.) The Hawks ranked second in defensive efficiency over the regular season. They’ve yielded 104 and now 123 points to Cleveland. The Cavs had 74 points at the half in Game 2; the Hawks had 70 after three quarters.
Yes, there’s a difference in talent: The Cavs have LeBron, and also Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson. The Hawks, however, have four All-Stars from last season and two from this. They aren’t as good as the Cavs, but they shouldn’t be getting the score doubled on them. (With three seconds left in the first half, Cleveland led 74-36.)
“It’s tough to take,” Al Horford said, which was pretty much all any Hawk could say. The fourth quarter became laughable — the Cavs’ subs were slinging 3-pointers hand over fist to try to break the record, which was 23 — and someone wondered if the Hawks felt they’d been rendered laughing stocks. Horford seemed more shocked than ticked.
“If you’re in that position,” he said, “you probably want to (set a record).”
Which they eventually did. Dahntay Jones hit No. 24. Mo Williams hit No. 25. In the grand scheme, these were footnotes to Smith’s six astonishing first-half treys, but the home crowd ate them up.
The series shifts to Philips Arena for Games 3 and 4, which should favor the Hawks. But the Cavs have won their past three games in Atlanta, two coming in last year’s Eastern Conference finals. They’re good enough to win anywhere. Through two games, the Hawks have given little indication they could prevail here, which they’d have to do to take the series.
After this wipeout, the Hawks would do well just to force a Game 5. They said they were better prepared for this series against the Cavs than they were last May, but that bit of bravado ignored two cruel truths: The Hawks aren’t as good as they were last season, and these Cavs are better.
The rally from 18 down in Game 1 semi-obscured the bigger picture — the Hawks had been roundly outplayed for 2 1/2 quarters and even after taking a fourth-quarter lead lost by 11 — but Game 2 brought the difference between teams into sharp relief. The Cavaliers did as they pleased. The 25-point final margin flattered the visitors, who never drew nearer than 21 over the final 32 minutes and 47 seconds.
Someone asked Horford if the Hawks could rally themselves and make this a series. “That’s a big question for us right now,” he said. “We had a game plan we thought was really good. It got discarded.”
We could run through the list of Hawks who had bad games, but what’s the point? (Dennis Schroder, the only reason the Hawks had a chance in Game 1, scored 22 fewer points in Game 2.) The whole team was terrible. Or maybe the Cavs are so good that it doesn’t matter what the Hawks do.
There’s a reason LeBron’s teams keep winning the Eastern Conference. This is the best of his Cleveland teams. It’s hard to imagine these Hawks halting it — or even beating it once.
Further reading: The Cavs rain treys and inundate the Hawks.