For all of the first half and most of the third quarter, I was just sitting there and thinking one thing: “The Cavs don’t look very good.” Then I’d glance at the scoreboard and notice it was tied. That’s always a good sign. Then J.R. Smith happened, and it was basically over.
The Cavs had played Game 1 on the road 14 previous times — and lost every one. LeBron James wasn’t much better. Entering Wednesday, he was 0-for-8 in Game 1 on the road (0-4 with the Cavs, 0-4 with Miami). So the Cavs made history on this night, and more importantly, snatched home-court advantage for the series.
Back to J.R. Swish. He started brilliantly, coming off the bench for 4-of-4 shooting and 11 points in the first half. He was even better in the second, scoring 17 and simply deflating the Hawks via long-range shots right in their mugs. In the end, Smith compiled 28 points on 10-of-16 from the floor. That included a franchise-record eight 3-pointers.
Oh, by the way, the 6-foot-6 guard also pulled down eight rebounds and did a solid job defensively.
LeBron to FOX Sports Ohio on Smith: “I guess you call that, in his terms, a hole in one. The way he was shooting that ball, we needed that.”
Cavs coach David Blatt, when asked if he knows what makes Smith tick: “Yeah, we gotta him the ball. Doesn’t take much more than that.”
Then Blatt smiled. “I’d like to know the last guy to hit eight threes and grab eight rebounds in the same game,” he said.
Basically, when Smith gets in this mode, everyone should just sit back and watch. Fans, teammates, defenders — there isn’t much that can be done. And this type of explosiveness is nothing new for Smith. “He’s been doing that since high school,” said Cavs power forward Tristan Thompson.
James, of course, wasn’t too shabby himself. He scored 31 points, collected eight boards and passed for six assists. He was outstanding in the second quarter, putting the ball thriough the basket with several nifty one-handed push shots in the lane.
Those are the fundamentals, and they come from hours of work, often alone, in a gym. It’s almost as if LeBron has been watching musty black-and-white footage of legendary center George Mikan.
The Hawks shot 57 percent in the first half. Their strong ball movement resulted in them getting anything they wanted in the lane. Point guard Jeff Teague was particularly a nuisance. The Cavs guards couldn’t stop him, as he controlled the tempo and finished with 17 first-half points.
Mostly, the Hawks’ high pick-and-roll caused nightmares for the Cavs in the first quarter. But they did a good job of bodying up, pressuring shooters and protecting the basket after that. Thompson (14 points, 10 rebounds) and center Timofey Mozgov (10 points, 11 rebounds) were two huge reasons.
Same goes for Blatt. He did an outstanding job of adjusting the defense and allowing the smaller Hawks to try to beat the Cavs inside. It worked, as the Hawks were pressured into 4-of-23 shooting on threes — and overall, went a miserable 12-of-39 from the floor in the second half.
That defense also played a big role in the Cavs building an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter. With strong D and LeBron James, it’s OK to dream that the Cavs might be on the brink of something big.
But instead of putting it away, the Cavs quit running the offense late in the game. That helped the Hawks cut the deficit to four points. The same type of stuff happened in the East semifinals vs. Chicago, and it needs to end. There is still time for anything to happen in this series, as momentum is tricky thing that can change quickly.
LeBron spent too much time dribbling and not nearly enough creating near the end. To his credit, he recognized that and took the blame for many of the issues on offense.
James to FOX Sports Ohio: “I don’t like the way I closed out the game. I allowed them to get back in it with my nonsense.”
But he also deserves some credit. After all, it was James who parted the Hawks’ defense right down the middle, drove the lane, and threw down a one-handed monster slam to basically put things out of reach.
OK, now to Kyrie Irving. Injuries to his knee and foot have severely limited his effectiveness, especially on the road. He finished with 10 points and six assists, but understandably struggled to defend. He said he aggravated the sore knee on a drive to the basket in the third quarter — but is determined to play in Game 2 on Friday.
It makes you wonder if it’s time to rest Kyrie for a night. At the same time, it’s probably going to take more than four days off for his injuries to heal. He is still a threat, and just his presence on the floor means a lot to his teammates.
Irving on the injuries: “The most frustrating part is seeing holes in the defense that I’m used to attacking.
I really do sometimes wonder how good this team would be right now if it had a healthy Kevin Love and a healthy Irving.
Meanwhile, the Hawks have a reason to feel nervous themselves, as starting small forward DeMarre Carroll landed awkwardly on his knee during a drive to the basket. It looked bad, and Carroll needed help to get off the court and into the locker room. He left the arena on crutches. Carroll is scheduled for an MRI on Thursday. Without him, this otherwise balanced bunch is in real trouble.
The odds mean little, but history tells us this: Teams that win Game 1 have gone on to win the series 77 percent of the time. Still, I’m old enough to remember when the LA Lakers beat the Bulls in the first game of the 1991 Finals. The Bulls then won the next four for the title. A more recent example: The Cavs lost the first game of their previous series, then won in six.
LeBron to FOX Sports Ohio: “We can play a lot better. We’ve got to continue to attack.”