Dribbles: Inspiring Cavs playing smart, playing right
Random dribbles on the Cavaliers’ 94-82 win over the host Atlanta Hawks in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals Friday:
1. Right now, there’s nothing these Cavs cannot do. You can’t put anything past them. They are building something in that locker room and on that court, and it’s special. With that type of togetherness, and a real star in LeBron James, the sky is the limit.
2. No Kyrie Irving? No problem. The Cavs played even better than in Game 1. The strategy is simple: Get the ball to LeBron and he’ll drive and score, or drive and kick. The shooters are always ready. And as coach David Blatt said, LeBron doesn’t just pass the ball. He delivers it to "the shooting pocket" of his teammates.
3. Interestingly, Cavs general manager David Griffin always said the Cavs were a drive-and-kick team. Griffin started saying that last season — when he was just an interim GM, Mike Brown was the coach, and James was a member of the Miami Heat.
4. The Cavs were anything but a "drive-and-kick" team then. But Griffin had a vision, and it’s being realized. A player like James has a lot to do with it. So does a coach like Blatt. So do nothing-to-lose shooters such as J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova and James Jones.
5. Those four names are hardly a who’s who of basketball icons. They’re not Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love. They’re certainly not people who the Hawks expected to beat them. Not when you’re the Hawks, a team that won 60 games — and a team that had the first two games of this series at home.
6. Nor did anyone expect Tristan Thompson to be the Cavs’ starting power forward when the playoffs began. But then Love suffered a shoulder injury vs. Boston, and the Cavs had to play an entirely new way. Love stretched the floor with his size and ability to hit from long range. Thompson has excelled in many areas, but any shot from more than five feet is an adventure.
7. So the Cavs altered a lot. In the words of Blatt, they needed to start "playing downhill." That meant driving hard and trying to score at the basket more regularly. It meant kicking the ball out when the basket was closely defended. It meant becoming a drive-and-kick team.
8. In Game 1, it was J.R. Smith who benefited from that style, scoring 28 points and burying eight 3-pointers. In Game 2, it was Iman Shumpert (18 points), Matthew Dellavedova (11), and even James Jones and Smith (nine apiece). LeBron, of course, made much of it happen — erupting for 30 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds.
9. Blatt on the win: "We wanted to get the ball at the rim, we wanted to drive and kick. We took care of that. Our guys just played right at both ends."
10. Ah, yes. Both ends. The Cavs have been a defensive force in the playoffs, suffocating opponents into 41-percent shooting and 92 points per game. The Hawks shot 42 percent and scored 82. And while cohesion is always important on offense, the locker-room camaraderie especially helps on D.
11. Thompson told FOX Sports Ohio that the Cavs’ focused on stopping the Hawks on an individual basis, and not leaving their man or "helping" defensively. "If you take them out of their sets, then they have to try to play one-on-one," he said.
12. That works because the Hawks are a team void of stars, a team that prefers to move the ball and not let it "stick" in one man’s hands. The last thing they want is to try to go one-on-one. But the Cavs simply won’t allow them to make an easy cut, pass or shot. As we’ve seen, the Hawks have no chance when that happens.
13. You could probably read 1,000 stories just like this about the Cavs — about how they are finding ways to win without Irving and Love. Irving’s knee tendinitis remains bothersome. He was a scratch just hours before the game. So all of the stories and opinions about the Cavs will be true. This really is fun, and perhaps even inspirational, to watch.
14. Last time LeBron was in Cleveland, everyone viewed the Cavs as underachievers. He returned a different man after four straight Finals appearances (and two championships) with the Heat. He has matured in every imaginable way — a guy who is just enjoying himself and his role as undisputed leader. He’s directing, he’s producing, he’s encouraging, and he’s assuring everyone that this really can happen. And all of his teammates have just decided to throw caution to the wind and believe right along with him.
15. Now, the Cavs get two at home. They need to continue to play carefree and smart. They need to continue to crash the glass. They need to continue to defend like every night is Game 7. They need to put this thing away and get some rest. As Thompson told FOX Sports Ohio, "We don’t want to give them life."
16. Perhaps the only question remaining is whether to let Irving continue to rest. One theory is to keep him sidelined until the Cavs lose. If that doesn’t happen, he’ll get 15 days off before the Finals begin June 4. They need Kyrie, and they want him out there. But giving his knee and foot extra time to heal, while continuing to win, is the best of all possibilities.
17. Finally, not enough can be said about Blatt and his staff. Much like the players on the floor, the coaches are on the same page. You don’t do great things just because you have one superstar. Goodness knows, that wasn’t the case last time LeBron was in Cleveland.
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