- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's been written in this space many times before that without an underlying belief that the team really can win, no strategies mean anything. Atlanta came into Game 2 with starters Al Horford and Marvin Williams inactive, due to injury, after playing in Game 1. So the Hawks knew that the only way to steal Game 2 was to play an almost perfect game on both ends and the backboards. But they brought preseason-level defensive intensity to start the game, falling behind by nine at the end of the quarter and 24 by halftime, and nothing much mattered after that.
• The spate of vicious hits that have punctuated the early rounds of these playoffs have not had an impact on Atlanta's team. Incredibly, the Hawks allowed LeBron James to do whatever he wanted in this game. His defender went under ball screens, leaving him wide open for a 3-point attempt. Swish. He drove from the 3-point line to the rim uncontested (and unmolested). Slam. Dribble, dribble, dribble, unmarked, until Anderson Varejao creeps next to the rim to receive the pass. Layup.
It's one thing to get spanked by a team that is taking all an opponent can give but giving back more. It's quite another when the opponent is getting spanked and does not seem bothered by it. Perhaps Atlanta's fans can serve as inspiration, or maybe the return of one or both of the injured starters can change the tone. But without a huge increase in intensity, awareness, and physicality, the Hawks will have no shot in this series.
• On the court, Atlanta needs to find a way to score and hurt Cleveland's defense. The Cavs continued to double Joe Johnson when he caught the ball on the wing, not bringing the double over until Johnson got deeper than the free throw line extended. Again, it was very sound strategy. To counter it, Atlanta initially had Johnson bring the ball up the floor, but he rarely tried to make something happen. So all he did was initiate the offense, and if he got the ball back on the wing, the double came. Atlanta may decide to really go up-tempo at home, and allow Johnson to push the ball and look to score right away. This could help him get off to a better start.
• When Zydrunas Ilgauskas doubles JJ on the wing, there is a big opening in the middle of the floor. Since Horford was out, Atlanta did not have anyone adept at flashing there and then being able to hit the shot or one-dribble dunk at the rim. But it was there, and will be in Game 3. Atlanta must get the ball there, via pass or drive. And once the ball enters the paint, someone has to aggressively attack the rim. Then the Hawks can decide to finish strong or kick it out if help arrives. Smith could play this role, one that Lamar Odom often does with success. But will he?
• Regarding the open lane -- too often an Atlanta player filled that spot but did not come to the ball side of the floor. Instead, he remained in the opposite box, giving LeBron an open lane to step into for the steal or deflection. Flashers must make that pass a short one.
• Cleveland is not even trying to contest Josh Smith jumpers, giving him lots of cushion in the hope that he will pull out the jump shot. But Smith can use that room to build driving momentum and attack, using a quick spin move once he reaches the defender if his initial attack is slowed. If the Cavs send a second guy over to help, Smith can rack up the assists, but only if he first commits to drive.
• Atlanta is lost on defense, as it is playing without a plan. It's not easy to come up with strategies to defend LeBron, but the Hawks don't have an identity either. They are not pressuring with their athleticism. They are not trapping and scrambling. And they are not being physical, at all. Picking one or all of those identities can be a solid first step towards being competitive in Game 3.
• There is little that Cleveland is thinking about changing. Certainly the Cavs will address the four offensive rebounds Zaza Pachulia grabbed in the first half. And Delonte West had some careless turnovers. But this team is focused on maintaining its excellent play, not coming up with new strategies.
• With the expectation that Atlanta's crowd will be at a fever pitch, it will be interesting to see whether LeBron works himself into the scoring lead (as he certainly can) right away, or gets his teammates involved early.
• Whichever way LeBron goes, expect frequent screening actions to be run on Mike Bibby.
• Cleveland did get casual on occasion in dealing with the big-on-little switches it initiated: The Cavs' guards often settled for jumpers over the Hawks' big men, while Cleveland's bigs didn't get to the rim for the offensive rebound. Atlanta is a much better team at home, so Cleveland will not want to waste any scoring opportunities.
• Horford and Williams -- will they return to the floor?
• Joe Johnson proved he could carry the Hawks against the mighty Celtics defense last year. Can he do it again?
• When teams are on this kind of roll, they can relax for just a bit, then struggle to get the momentum back. The Cavs needs to start this game as if it might come down to the wire, with their attention on every possession.
• Atlanta can use its home crowd to play with energy. And it can set simple and attainable goals to help them stay close -- like winning one of the first three quarters (the Hawks are 0-for-6). But though these teams played very competitive games during the season, they are at very different levels now. Cleveland's level means that Atlanta has to play great basketball to win, and even then it would take a lot to pull out the victory. Too much, I think.
Cavs win Game 3
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for more than 40 NBA, European and D-League players. Those players include Kevin Martin, Rob Kurz, Luol Deng, Courtney Lee and Tyrus Thomas. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.
7dEthan Sherwood Strauss