Commentary

Sluggish Cavaliers finish off Hawks

Originally Published: May 11, 2009
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

LeBron JamesJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesLeBron James and the Cavaliers will have plenty of time to rest after sweeping the Hawks.

ATLANTA -- Mission accomplished … sort of.

The Cleveland Cavaliers completed a four-game sweep of the Atlanta Hawks with an 84-74 win to advance to the conference finals, but they weren't exactly popping champagne corks afterward.

"Why should we celebrate?" LeBron James asked after the game. "We're trying to win a championship. We're excited because we're playing great basketball, but we're not satisfied."

At least this time the Cavs showed they could grind out a tough win, rather than blowing another overmatched team off the floor.

"Sometimes you have to win ugly like this, and it's good to know that you can," Cavs coach Mike Brown said. "I'm sure Atlanta feels like they didn't play their best. I know offensively we didn't play our best. But the way we defended tonight allowed us to make some mistakes."

"Some" might be an understatement: Cleveland shot 14-of-26 from the line, including three straight misses by Wally Szczerbiak and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to end the first half, and committed 18 turnovers. But in a contest that looked more like a Grizzlies-Wolves game in mid-January than a second-round NBA playoff game, it was ultimately Cleveland's airtight defense that allowed it to complete the sweep. The Cavs held the Hawks to 31.5 percent shooting and permitted only 36 points in the second half.

"Our defense allowed us to turn the ball over 18 times for 22 points, to shoot 53 percent from the free throw line," Brown said. Those are not impressive numbers at all, but in the playoffs on the road, you have to have an anchor. Our guys have that, and they believe in it."

It was the first real test of the postseason for the Cavs, who had posted double-figure wins in their first seven playoff games. This went in the books as a double-figure win, too, but it wasn't decided until Mo Williams hit a 3-pointer with 52.1 seconds left to put the Cavs up by eight.

That shot ended a fateful 63-second Cleveland trip that featured two of the defining elements of this series -- the Cavs owning the boards, and Cleveland attacking the defense of Atlanta's Mike Bibby. The possession began with 1:55 left and the home crowd in full lather after the Hawks cut the deficit to 79-74, but Anderson Varejao and Ilgauskas each rebounded James misses to keep the possession alive for more than a minute.

Then, after a foul on Joe Johnson created a dead ball, the Hawks failed to go offense-defense and take Bibby out of the game. Cleveland created a switch that left Bibby guarding James in the post, Atlanta doubled, and when the next-closest defender, Josh Smith, turned his head to call out a rotation behind him, James snapped a pass out top to Williams -- who took advantage of the extra split second it took Smith to react to nail a backbreaking triple.

"It's a game of inches," James said. "I see a lot of plays before they happen. I knew the double was going to come, and I knew Mo was going to have an open look because they weren't rotating quick enough to our guards."

The two offensive rebounds on that trip were symptomatic, as well: Cleveland owned the rebound battle 48-33, after doubling the Hawks' rebound total in Game 3. Varejao and Ilgauskas combined for 21 of those boards, including 12 on the offensive end.

"We realized we don't want to have to jump with these guys on every possession, we need to put a body on somebody and then go pursue the rebound," Brown said. "Once we decided to do that, we had some great results."

However, the reason the Cavs were in that game at all by that point was because of their suffocating defense -- one that completely eliminated the Hawks' secondary scorers. Although Johnson (7-of-18) and Smith (8-of-16) shot reasonably well, their teammates were a ghastly 8-for-39. Starters Bibby, Al Horford and Marvin Williams combined to score seven points on 2-for-19 shooting.

"It goes all the way back to childhood: Defense wins championships," said Delonte West, who guarded Johnson for most of the series. "We've been learning that since day one."

Unusually, James was more good than great in this one -- he finished with 27 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, but shot only 9-for-22. He even committed three fouls, after being whistled for just 10 in his first seven playoff games combined.

Nonetheless, the Cavs will get another long layoff before they play Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. That game might not be for nine days, depending how the league's other second-round series play out, so rust is a concern going forward.

"We have to manage our time correctly," West said. "We have to get some days of rest and some days where we get a good sweat in."

As for the Hawks, they bow out after exceeding all expectations and making the second round of the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Plus, it might be the second year in a row they got knocked out by the eventual champion. But injuries to starters Johnson, Williams and Horford made an already difficult task all but impossible against the Cavs.

"I just wish we had a healthier team," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. "It's hard to judge our team in this series, not being healthy. "

"We just didn't have enough. They're playing at a very high level, and they have a legitimate shot at winning the title."

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.