The Cleveland Cavaliers barely missed injured Kyrie Irving on Friday as they cruised to a 94-82 victory over Atlanta and a commanding lead in the NBA Eastern Conference finals.
Four-time NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James fueled the win, falling one rebound shy of a triple-double with 30 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds.
The Cavaliers notched their second straight victory on the Hawks’ home court, holding the Eastern Conference top seeds to 41.8 percent shooting from the floor.
Atlanta connected on just six of 26 from three-point range, and James said Cleveland’s defensive effort was key.
“That’s where we hang our hat,” James said. “We’re the number one defensive team in the post-season and in order for us to win we have to defend — and that’s what we’re doing.”
James was 10-of-22 from the field and eight of his 11 assists led to a Cavs’ three-pointer.
“He sees things ahead of time,” Cleveland coach David Blatt said. “He’s willing to pass the ball and he believes in his teammates.”
With Irving sidelined by nagging knee trouble, Australian guard Matthew Dellavedova delivered 11 points, six rebounds and four assists.
Iman Shumpert scored 16 points, Tristan Thompson pulled down 16 rebounds and Timovey Mozgov had 10 points and seven rebounds for Cleveland, who head home for games three and four in the best-of-seven series with a 2-0 series lead.
Blatt insisted it was too soon to start thinking about a four-game sweep.
“This is not anywhere near done,” he said. “We have to continue to play right.”
But the lead heading into two home games gives the Cavaliers breathing room with regard to All-Star guard Irving, perhaps allowing him to rest more.
The winners of the series will take on either the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets in the NBA finals, which start on June 4.
The Warriors lead the Western Conference finals 2-0 after two victories over the Rockets at home in Oakland, California.
After a close first half, Cleveland took control with a 30-17 third quarter, stretching their lead as they held the Hawks to 32 percent shooting in the period.
“It’s a total 360 from our last series,” James said. “We were terrible in the third quarter versus the Bulls. We understood if we want to be really good we’ve got to come out with a little bit more sense of urgency.
“We have to play more pedal to the metal in the third quarter. Defensively we’ve been locked in … We’ve been very, very in tune with the game plan and that’s allowed us to get to some leads in the third quarter and push the game out of reach,” he said.
– Banged up Hawks –
The Hawks were also dealing with injuries. DeMarre Carroll, who endured a scary knee injury late in game one, started and played 34 minutes.
But the Hawks saw forward Al Horford and guard Kyle Korver suffer injuries in the second half.
Horford was hampered by what appeared to be a leftfoot injury, while Korver left with a sprained ankle and did not return.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said Carroll’s presence was a boost for the Hawks, but in the end Carroll himself said Atlanta were pulled out of the game that brought them the best regular-season record in the East.
“We’ve got to get back to playing unselfish basketball,” he said. “Sometimes we get down and everybody tries to take over one-on-one.
“At the end of the day we know we’re not moving the ball like we should. We know we didn’t play a great game. We know we didn’t play a team game.” – Agence France-Presse