Forget the Big Three.
One is enough for the Cleveland Cavaliers, as long as it’s the King.
LeBron James scored 30 points and the Cavaliers took total command of the Eastern Conference final even without injured star Kyrie Irving, beating the Atlanta Hawks 94-82 on Friday night for a 2-0 lead with the series heading to Ohio.
Cleveland pulled away with a dominating third quarter. James scored 11 points, the Hawks shot just 32 percent (7 of 22), and Cleveland led by as many as 20.
This was a blowout in every sense.
The final margin, with a bunch of backups on the court, was as close as Hawks had been since midway through the third.
“You really can’t make me do what I don’t want to do,” James said. “I play the right way.”
He’ll get no argument from the Hawks.
Irving was scratched before the game because of an ailing left knee. Even so, the Cavaliers cruised to their second straight win in Atlanta.
James assumed many of the ball-handling duties, taking advantage of Atlanta’s DeMarre Carroll being at less than 100 percent.
Carroll started after being carried off the court just two nights earlier, but he hardly looked like the “Junkyard Dog.”
He wasn’t the only one struggling. The Hawks were totally outclassed for one of the few times all season.
“In the playoffs, it takes more,” Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said. “It takes better execution, better screening. You’ve got to do things harder.”
The Cavaliers can wrap up the best-of-seven series simply by winning at home. The next two are in Cleveland, beginning with Game 3 on Sunday night.
This is why James returned home after spending four years in south Florida, leading the Heat to a pair of NBA titles. The Cavaliers, who have never won a championship, assembled a Miami-like Big Three with James, Irving and Kevin Love, but the King is carrying the load with Irving sidelined and Love out with a season-ending injury.
“How much does it help to have LeBron on your team?” Cleveland coach David Blatt said, repeating a question incredulously. “Do I really have to answer that?”
To be fair, James had a bit of help. Tristan Thompson was a beast on the inside, grabbing 16 rebounds to spark Cleveland to a 47-39 advantage.
When Thompson dunked off a pass from James with just under 5 minutes remaining, the Cavaliers led 93-74 and many Atlanta fans began heading for the exits, surely sensing they had seen their team for the last time in this most unexpected season. Atlanta won a franchise-record 60 games to claim the top seed in the East, but the Hawks have been picked apart by the best player in the world.
James had 31 points in Game 1.
The Hawks had hoped that Carroll’s appearance would provide an emotional boost. An injury that looked much more serious turned out to be only a sprain, and he drew a big cheer from the crowd when he did his customary sprint across the court during the opening introductions.
But at less than full speed, Carroll had no chance trying to guard James, who made 10 of 22 shots including a pair of 3-pointers. When the Hawks began collapsing toward the lane, trying to give Carroll help, James always seemed to fine the open man – often lurking behind the 3-point stripe.
James had 11 assists and just missed a triple-double, also grabbing nine rebounds.
The Cavaliers finished 12 of 30 beyond the arc. Iman Shumpert knocked down four from long range and finished with 16 points.
Dennis Schroder led the Hawks with just 13 points. Carroll played a team-high 33:47 but managed only six points – 10 below his playoff average.
Carroll wasn’t the only one hurting. Kyle Korver’s right ankle was rolled going for a loose ball late in the third quarter and he didn’t return. Al Horford banged his knee early in the fourth and hobbled to the sideline, though he was able to come back.
It didn’t really matter.
Cavaliers: Cleveland has outrebounded the Hawks 96-76 over the first two games. … Matthew Dellavedova had 11 points, six rebounds and four assists starting in place of Irving. … After scoring 28 points and hitting eight 3s in Game 1, J.R. Smith wasn’t much of a factor. He had nine points, making only one shot beyond the stripe.
Hawks: Shot 42 percent from the field, including 6 of 26 from 3-point range. … The starters combined for just 46 points on 18-of-49 shooting, led by Horford, Korver and Jeff Teague with 12 apiece. … Paul Millsap played just 27 minutes and was held to four points on 2-of-8 shooting.
THE KING’S MILESTONES
James had the 74th 30-point game in the playoffs, tying him with Jerry West for fourth on the career list.
The only players with more are Michael Jordan (109), Kobe Bryant (88) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (75).
Blatt celebrated his 56th birthday. When a reporter asked during the morning shootaround what he wanted, the first-year coach gave the obvious reply, “Just a Cavs win. That’s all I’m asking for.”
He got his wish.
SOURCE: The Associated Press