Hawks > Cavs take Game 3 in OT; Lead 3-0

| May 25, 2015

Hawks Cavs 052515

CLEVELAND — What a mess.

If there was a way essentially to finalize an Eastern Conference race that was plagued with sloppy execution, injuries and underachievement it was Game 3 of the conference finals. It’s all but over now after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 114-111 overtime victory over the Atlanta Hawks made it a 3-0 series lead.

There were controversial calls, injuries, late scratches, ejections, accusations of dirty play, cramps, epically long replay reviews, missed wide-open potential game-winners, unexpected lineup alterations, bits of bizarre strategy and some mindless decision-making under pressure.

If you want to get right down to the bottom line, though, there’s basically only one way to explain it. The same could’ve been said in November when this all started just as it could’ve been said for the past five years.

One team had LeBron James and the other didn’t.

Analyze the individual moments in the game all you want. Examine the statistical differences, rage on about a decision to eject the Hawks’ Al Horford while he was in the midst of a monster game despite the presence of reasonable doubt, parse Matthew Dellavedova’s movements frame-by-frame and offer conjecture at intent. Have at it, there’s plenty of fodder there.

Discuss DeMarre Carroll playing 41 minutes through what looks like a throbbing knee injury. Question Hawks coach Mike Budenhozler’s strategy to give the injured Kyle Korver’s playing time to the little-used Shelvin Mack while benching Dennis Schroder because he so badly needed shooting. Debate the complexity of Jeff Teague’s erratic game and his ability to look equal parts brilliant and foolhardy sometimes on alternating possessions.

Consider the bizarro world in which Dellavedova is having podium games wearing hoodies and trending on Twitter while Kyrie Irving hasn’t finished the past four games (he hasn’t played at all in the past two) and yet the Cavs are one win away from being back in the NBA Finals.

All of these events and circumstances played some sort of role Sunday night. They’re also all just details, most of which will be forgotten in the next few days or so.

What lasts, lasts like the bronze statue they’re going to build of James someday in Cleveland, and is what happens so frequently in basketball. The team with the best player won. It’s as basic and, for the Hawks’ side, as frustrating as that.

Because with the Cavs trailed in overtime and James having made a measly 9-of-61 3-pointers over the past five weeks of the playoffs, he was willing and able to fearlessly make a 3-pointer with less than 40 seconds left. And after missing 23 other shots and his leg cramping (yes, cramps again) he managed to bank in a driving shot 30 seconds later to provide a vital cushion.

These were the final acts of a 37-point, 18-rebound, 13-assist game in which he missed his first 10 shots, one almost cost his team a crucial basket because he was lying on the ground complaining about not getting a foul call. Maybe he even milked his injuries as he’s wont to do, once limping and asking to come out in overtime only to wave off the Cavs’ bench after David Blatt blanched as he briefly considered the possibility.

Ultimately, these are pencil shavings under the masterpiece that is his playoff career. Toss another file into the database.

“I’ve been able to have experience over the years that’s helped me to get to this point,” James said. “My game is so much better than it was when I was younger and everything that I’ve worked on over the course of years and the mental side of the game, I just try to incorporate that on the floor, no matter if I’m making shots or missing shots or whatever the case may be.”

The numbers look impressive, and because this is the conference finals, there was a weight to the outcome. But in reality this wasn’t truly one of James’ great career games.

It is poetic to classify it that way and, because those last two shots went in, the memory will lend itself nicely for this purpose. Those who attended the game can say they were there when James put up that dominant triple-double on the Hawks back in 2015.

James’ playoff résumé is getting so deep that there isn’t a game that goes by where he doesn’t pass some great on some list. Just in this series alone he has moved past Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Karl Malone and Jason Kidd in various statistical categories and/or accomplishments. Up next will be putting him alongside Bill Russell and the great Boston Celtics teams because James is about to reach his fifth consecutive NBA Finals.

The Hawks and Game 3 will just be another notch in the belt. Decimated by injury and derailed from their midseason greatness, this version of the Hawks could easily turn out to be the least memorable conference finals opponent James has ever dealt with. When you play in seven conference finals, after all, one of them has to be the seventh most interesting.

Comparing this performance, as deep as it was in numbers and moments, to James’ 2007 conference finals effort against the Detroit Pistons, when he scored 29 of the Cavs’ last 30 points on the road against a vastly superior team, lacks perspective and the understanding of exactly who James has become.

It was a clutch day to be sure but frankly, it was also just another day at the playoff office. He won his team a game they would’ve lost without him. He has done it scores of times before and he’ll probably do it dozens more times again. If there’s a compliment to be paid to James, it’s not making a big deal of it because he has been producing these sorts of performances like Boeing churns out airplanes. They’re big and gleaming but they’re also everywhere.

“Unbelievable. Just unbelievable,” Blatt said. “I have never seen a stat line like that in a playoff game or in any other game to be honest with you.”

Well, stick around coach. If the Cavs are going to have any hope of upsetting the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, they’re probably going to need some actually unbelievable showings.

When ogling the stat line, remember that James once played a playoff road elimination game in which he had 27 points, 19 rebounds, 10 assists and three steals but was later accused of quitting.

Because he once was capable of losing games like that — as he did to the Boston Celtics in 2010, a massively more challenging opponent than these Hawks it must be said — he knows not to take what he did on Sunday night for granted. No one should take rising up to carry your team to this kind of victory for granted.

So give him credit but don’t be surprised — this is what he does.

“I’m playing through a lot [of pain] but it doesn’t matter. I don’t want any sympathy, there’s no rest for the weary,” James said. “I have to make things happen for our team. It’s that simple.”

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