Cavs 94, Hawks 82 (Cavs lead 2-0)
Iman Shumpert won’t remember this, but our paths briefly crossed at an Atlanta-area California Pizza Kitchen a little while back. When my party walked in, I noticed his trademark flat top almost immediately. The waiter just happened to sit us in a booth right next to his. We exchanged head nods and kept it moving. That was 2011.
Fast forward about four years and look at him—still eating. Only now Shump’s diet has seemingly changed from pepperoni to the postseason. Relatively quiet in Cleveland’s Game 1 breezer in Philips Arena, the 6-5 shooting guard from Georgia Tech was a glutton from deep in Game 2, going for 16 points with 4 three-pointers.
So far in these Eastern Conference Finals, though, that’s been the recipe for the Cavaliers—LeBron James has set at the head of the table, but the guys beside him have changed. One night it’s Shumpert. Another time it’s JR Smith. The next might be James Jones. It hasn’t much mattered. As long as the team is making shots, hustling for loose balls and playing with an us-first mindset, everyone feasts.
“Right now, my feeling is we’re the big one—one team,” said Cleveland head coach David Blatt in the post-game presser. “To miss a guy like Kyrie [Irving] and a guy like Kevin [Love], the other guys have to raise their level and have to be committed to competing and believing in themselves as a team. And that’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re doing just a terrific job of playing as a team and making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.”
Funny thing, were you to take out the names in that last quote, it could have easily come from Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer a few months back. There was a stretch in January or February where you could have thrown a dart at a board of names and, wherever the dart stuck, that person could have been the star of the night. But of late, just about everyone in a Hawks jersey is struggling. Take last night’s tepid showing. The bigs weren’t blocking out (Atlanta was outrebounded 47 to 39). The guards weren’t finishing (Jeff Teague’s seventh playoff game shooting under 40%). No one was making anything consistently from deep (before leaving with an ankle injury in the third, Kyle Korver was 2-of-6 from long range). While I didn’t physically hear anyone say it, it sure looks like the team had a fat case of We’re-just-happy-to-be-here-itis.
The King smells that kind of stuff from a mile away. In the first quarter, he knew the resilient DeMarre Carroll was conscious about his left knee, so he went right at him. LeBron had 13 in the opening quarter. By the end of the third, he had 28 points and nine assists off a smorgasbord of great looks to Shump and other open teammates beyond the arc. James finished with a gorgeous 30-9-11 stat line and, even more impressive, a 2-0 series cushion heading back to Northeast Ohio for Sunday’s Game 3.
After the Cleveland win, one reporter had the bright idea to ask Coach Blatt how much it helped having LeBron on his team in the playoffs. Blatt ate the silly question up. “Do I really gotta answer that,” coach asks. “Let’s put it this way, it’s better that you have [him] than you have not. How’s that? Very helpful.”
— DeMarco Williams