Up 2-0 over Hawks, LeBron James keeps stranglehold on Eastern Conference

ATLANTA 

David Blatt graduated from Princeton in the early 1980s, playing under legendary coach Pete Carrill before an extended pro career overseas. He finished with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature, writing his senior thesis on Brooklyn-born Bernard Malamud, author of the 1952 baseball novel "The Natural," as an expression of his affinity for sports literature. This educational background is well-documented, but, for a brief moment on Friday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers coach struggled to come up with the appropriate words.

Minutes earlier, he watched from the sidelines as LeBron James conducted a symphony on a basketball court. A classic LeBron James montage, a once-in-a-generation talent pulling an injury-hampered and underwhelming roster up to his level of expectations. When it was over, the Cavaliers held a commanding 2-0 series lead over the Atlanta Hawks and Blatt, when asked to describe his superstar’s performance, hesitated.

"I’ve got a good vocabulary," Blatt said, referencing that Princeton education, "but I’m sorta running out of superlatives for that guy."

James finished one rebound shy of a triple-double, logging 30 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds in a lopsided affair, pushing a team without stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love past the Eastern Conference’s top seed in a 94-82 road win. The final score doesn’t fairly evaluate the game’s narrative, either. James & Co. dominated from the outset.

The Hawks kept it close for a half, but when a 6-foot-8 point forward who happens to be the greatest player of his era is making the perfect read on every possession there is zero margin for error. The Hawks have made plenty of errors during this lopsided series so far. It’s unclear just how much those matter, though, when James is playing this well to lead a unit that has found offensive life and ranks No. 1 in defensive efficiency this postseason.

The question facing the Hawks throughout the season was whether their team-oriented approach would function against outstanding individual talent in the playoffs. Could a process that produced four All-Stars and 60 regular-season wins keep churning out production? That wasn’t an issue against Brooklyn in the first round, and while Washington found success going through Bradley Beal and, when healthy, John Wall, it wasn’t enough.

The Hawks eventually overwhelmed both opponents. Their current situation looks dramatically different.

With four teams left standing, the Hawks, with franchise history already in their back pocket, have lost their rhythm at the worst time. The Cavaliers have James, the Rockets have James Harden, the Warriors have Steph Curry and the Hawks have their system. The problem: James is singlehandedly carrying the Cavaliers. He’s scoring, distributing, leading.

It’s not so much one individual beating the collective, rather one individual lifting his own collective to new heights. All of which leaves James two wins shy of his fifth straight NBA Finals appearance.

"I’ve just seen every coverage that defenses can offer me, and I always try to be a triple threat on the floor, being able to score, to rebound, to pass, whatever the case may be, however the game presents itself," James said after his 74th career 30-point playoff game. " … I’m able to gauge the game and watch the game and able to replay it back in my mind and understand what I can do to help us win."

It certainly helps when the other team is running out of options.

Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll, James’ primary defender, played through a left knee sprain he suffered in Game 1 but was clearly limited. Atlanta’s second-best wing defender, Thabo Sefolosha, is out for the season after breaking his leg in an off-court incident in New York. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer threw forward Paul Millsap and reserves Kent Bazemore and Mike Scott at James with similarly disappointing results. If Carroll’s knee doesn’t get better, it’s difficult to envision James’ numbers dropping off significantly as the series returns to Quicken Loans Arena.

"It’s always difficult to guard LeBron. He’s a physical player and a smart player. He knew I was injured, so he came at me full force. I would have done the same if he was injured," Carroll said. "At the end of the day, he’s a great player."

Double-teaming would be an option if James couldn’t utilize his otherworldly knack for finding open shooters. Practically every time the Hawks sent a second defender at James, he made them pay. Those 11 assists in Game 2 were lethal. His first seven, and eight of his first nine dimes came by finding J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, James Jones or Matthew Dellavedova for open 3-pointers.

The Cavaliers have hit 22 3-pointers in the first two games of the series, all but a few contested Smith jumpers coming as a direct result of the Hawks’ focus on James. Another example, in a career full of them, of individual excellence buoying teammate performance, another tribute to his singular talent.

"LeBron sees things ahead of time," Blatt said. "Whether it’s knowing the play that we’re running and understanding where guys are going to be or whether he’s taking very quick mental pictures of where the defense is or whether it’s just understanding by his feel for how defenses play him — who’s gonna be open where when he makes a move to the baseline or the middle — or whether it’s the fact that he has terrific court vision and uses his size so well to see over guys … there’s a lot of things. There’s a combination of things.

"But probably more than anything else? It’s the fact that he’s willing to pass the ball and that he believes in his teammates. They feel that, they sense that, and that makes them more efficient and effective shooters."

This is all coming without the floor spacing and talent of Irving and Love. Cleveland has found its rhythm with makeshift lineups, but there’s a reason for the overall success. The Cavs’ acquisitions of Smith, Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov look like strokes of genius in hindsight, developing the necessary depth to withstand the loss of Irving and Love, but none of this works without James.

Shouldering this burden shouldn’t look so effortless.

This is par for the course, though.

Since James entered the league in 2003, all other East powers have faded. The Pistons, who made six straight conference finals appearances, hit the wall with age. The Celtics’ star-studded run was shorter but hit a similar obstacle. The Magic faded and disassembled at the end of the Dwight Howard era. The Bulls and Pacers flirted briefly with title contention. One player served as the common denominator at the end of practically every run.

Postseason roads in the Eastern Conference do not go through a particular city, they annually run through James.

Over the past nine seasons, his teams have played for the East’s crown seven times, dispatching five of the six challengers to date. He’s beaten the Pistons, Bulls, Celtics and Pacers (twice). Atlanta is the sixth such challenger. Through two games, the team-oriented Hawks have struggled to find an answer for the East’s unavoidable question.

It’s a one-way street, and it now runs uphill: James’s teams are 14-0 in series when they take a 2-0 lead. The toll isn’t getting cheaper.

The Hawks, like so many Eastern Conference teams before them, have a LeBron James problem.