(The Sports Xchange) - A week off did not disrupt the Cleveland Cavaliers’ momentum, nor was it enough time to alter the Atlanta Hawks’ history against them. The Cavaliers still have never lost to the Hawks in the postseason, but this one was not easy.
LeBron James scored 25 points and came up with two big steals late in the Cavs’ 104-93 victory on Monday against the Hawks to take a 1-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference semi-finals.
It was the eighth consecutive victory for the Cavs over the Hawks after sweeping them in last year’s conference finals and winning all three meetings in the regular season this year.
But they had to fight back after blowing an 18-point lead in the third quarter.
“When you get it to 18, all you’ve got to do is lift the shovel up and pour dirt on ‘em, especially if you want to be a high-level team,” Cavs reserve Richard Jefferson said. “We didn’t do that tonight and it almost cost us.”
A dunk by James with 3:56 left in the third quarter put the Cavs ahead 72-54 before the Hawks roared back, scoring 11 straight points and closing the third by scoring 16 of the last 18 points to pull within 74-70 at the start of the fourth.
Al Horford’s dunk with eight minutes left gave the Hawks their first lead of the night at 80-79, but Kyrie Irving countered on a corner 3-pointer -- his first basket since early in the second quarter.
There were four lead changes and three ties in the final eight frenetic minutes.
“I thought the way our guys competed for the whole night was what we need,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Going forward I think we can play better.”
The Cavs pulled away for good when James stole the ball from Dennis Schroder with Cleveland clinging to a 92-88 lead and 3:11 left.
The Cavs needed three cracks at the offensive end, thanks to two huge offensive rebounds, before James converted a three-point play to extend the lead to 95-88 with 2:09 left. It marked James’ first basket of the fourth quarter. He finished with nine assists and seven rebounds.
“I just like how our guys come together when things get tough now,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “That’s the biggest thing for us. We’ve got a great team. When things get tough, we have to come together even more.”
Irving had 21 points and eight assists and Kevin Love had 17 points and 11 rebounds despite a tough 4-of-17 shooting night.
Love took another hard blow to his right shoulder on a foul late in the game, the same shoulder he injured during a Game 4 victory against the Detroit Pistons in the first round. The Cavs’ trainer worked on the shoulder during a timeout and Love was able to remain in the game.
“I‘m fine,” Love said. “I can’t catch a break with that shoulder, but I‘m fine.”
Tristan Thompson had 14 rebounds (seven offensive) for the Cavs, who improved to 9-0 all-time against the Hawks in the postseason.
Schroder scored a career-playoff-high 27 points for the Hawks, who went more than four minutes late in the game without a field goal as the Cavs pulled away. Paul Millsap had 17 points and 13 rebounds, and Kent Bazemore had 16 points and 12 rebounds for Atlanta.
The Cavs again held down the Hawks’ starting backcourt of Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. Teague shot just 2 of 9 and Korver was held to just one shot attempt -- which he missed. Korver’s deadly 3-point shooting has been neutralized by the Cavs for two years now by running multiple defenders at him.
The tradeoff is what they gave up to Schroder.
“They don’t leave Kyle anywhere,” Budenholzer said. “They’ll send two people at him, three people at him and leave other guys with opportunities. Jeff had an off night. Some of his looks, some of his attacks we feel good about.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford