CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James plucked the Atlanta Hawks clean and stuffed them for mounting by himself in last year’s playoffs. He’s got more help now.
With Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving healthy and well-rested following a first-round sweep of Detroit, James and the Cleveland Cavaliers enter their series against the Hawks as overwhelming favorites to return to the Eastern Conference finals. The Cavs swept the Hawks a year ago on their way to the NBA Finals and have won seven straight over Atlanta.
James, though, said the recent domination means nothing once Game 1 tips off today.
“It don’t matter if you can win 100 straight games against somebody,” James said. “If you lose four in a row, then you’re out of the playoffs.”
That’s what happened to the Hawks last year, when James overwhelmed them in the conference finals. He nearly averaged a triple-double, posting 30.3 points,11 rebounds and 9.3 assists in the four games, the highest statistical line in postseason history.
The four-time MVP was forced to do much of it on his own after the Cavs lost Love to a shoulder injury in the first round and Irving was playing on a gimpy knee that eventually gave out in the Finals, when he shattered his kneecap in Game 1. Atlanta’s chances this time hinge on figuring a way to slow down James and take their chances with the rest of the Cavs.
“You start at the top, you put pressure on the leader, put pressure on their best player, which is LeBron James,” Hawks forward Paul Millsap said. “I think we go for the head of the snake now, which is LeBron, make it tough on him, get out to the shooters when possible, just make it tough on them all around.”
The Hawks believe their experience last season against James, along with the confidence gained in their first-round win over Boston, will serve them this time.
“Winning Game 6 in Boston is a huge step for not only myself, but this team,” guard Kent Bazemore said. “I don’t think a lot of people thought we were going to go up there and close it, the way they had been playing us all series. It’s just a step for us in the right direction.”
Here are some other things to note as the Hawks and Cavs meet for the second straight postseason:
Bazemore doesn’t like James and vice versa.
Atlanta’s guard began bashing James on social media before he got to the NBA, and he gave the superstar a shove in last year’s playoffs. Needless to say, James shoved back.
Bazemore relishes the chance to match up with James and needs an edge to do so.
“Whatever helps you wake up in the morning,” said Bazemore, who will likely get the first crack at guarding James. “You got to amp yourself up. You can’t go in humble, I guess. You’ve got to make yourself angry and do whatever you gotta do, because he’s a freight train. He comes with everything he has. You have to do the same to hang in there.”
Cavs hustling guard Matthew Dellavedova was a major pain — literally — in last year’s matchup.
Dellavedova knocked Hawks sharpshooter Kyle Korver out of the series with a sprained ankle while diving for a loose ball. He also got tangled up with Hawks big man Al Horford, who threw a forearm in frustration and was ejected from Game 3.
“Delly has actually been a thorn in our side,” Bazemore said. “He’s hurt us. I respect him. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. Plays hard. He isn’t afraid. You’ve gotta respect that, especially myself. I’m sure he’s not trying to take guys out.”
Rest vs. rust
Last season, the Cavs came off a weeklong break following the first round and dropped Game 1 at home to Chicago. Cleveland also lost Game 3, and if not for James’ clutch, game-winning 3-pointer in Chicago in Game 4, the Cavs could have been in a 3-1 hole.
Coach Tyronn Lue said Sunday his team is “very anxious” for the series to start.
When the teams played in Cleveland on April 11, James scored 34 points (on 13 of 16 shooting) and added six rebounds and six assists — in just three quarters. Irving added 35 points in the Cavs’ 109-94 win.
If there’s one noticeable change in the Hawks this season, it’s their defense. Atlanta held opponents to a league-low 43 percent field-goal percentage and 99.2 points per game. Millsap said the change happened naturally.
“We were struggling offensively,” he said. “If you’re not scoring, can’t let the opponents score. That’s where it all started. We struggled on the offensive end, defense was our staple. Defense kept us in games, won us games for us.”