Game 1 in Philips Arena felt strange to me. I know these Cavaliers as individuals, but I don't know this team. The Cavs have completely altered their play on the fly to compensate for injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Considering the offensive impact those players had it seemed natural that they couldn't be replaced on that end and that if the Cavs were to improve it would more likely be on defense. That is exactly what happened, but the degree to which it has happened has been surprising. The Bulls are hardly an offensive juggernaut and so despite playing tough defense through that series it was hard to say it would translate against an Atlanta team that is built very differently.
So, considering the sample size in which I've had to view this new look Cavaliers team and the stark contrast of their previous opponent to their current one, I really did not know what to expect headed into Wednesday night. Needless to say, I was pleased with the result, but how did Cavs secure the win?
The Cavs spacing with the two bigs on the floor to start the game seemed to hinder their offense. Kyrie's injury prevented him from being an ISO threat to Atlanta for much of the night, but he was at least able to provide spacing for the starting unit as he drilled his only two three pointers of the game in the opening quarter.
Where the Mozgov/Thompson frontcourt made up for their lack of spacing was the offensive glass. Between the two of them they were able to grab six extra possessions for the Cavs. Those possessions only resulted in a paltry four points, but it did keep the Hawks out of transition and limited the first quarter deficit for the Cavaliers.
Defensively the Cavs weren't too bad in the first quarter. There were a few occasions where Teague abused Thompson on a switch or exploited the Cavs going under picks by launching from mid-range or three, but I think that is what the game plan was to begin with, allow Teague to shoot instead of letting him get to the hoop or collapse the defense and kick to open shooters. Teague was just hitting from range early, a trend that did not continue through the game.
LeBron had a quiet first quarter offensively, but woke up in the 2nd quarter and began to go to work in the post. He made eight baskets in the quarter and only one was outside the painted area. We started seeing this LeBron against Chicago, but Butler was better at defending LeBron on the left side post-up ISO than the Hawks. The Bulls also had more size inside to force LeBron to kick out or disrupt the ISO all together whereas the Hawks do not. The Hawks were much more willing to double LeBron early on the post up as well which proved dangerous as LeBron was able to find open shooters off of this.
JR also began heating up this quarter, drilling a three treys. Atlanta's bench on the other hand was one of the main culprits for their loss. Dennis Schroder, the Hawks back up PG, got the same treatment as Teague on the Pick n' Rolls only he is much worse as a shooter and missed all three of his shots in the quarter, none coming from closer than 19 feet.
Quick kudos to David Blatt for the offensive play he drew up on the last Cavs' possession of the half. It ended in the now famous Delly to TT alley-oop, but it could have just as well ended in a LeBron slam because the Hawks were completely out of position.
Headed into the half TNT had a very pleasing basketball game on their hands, but the third quarter brought the ugly out of both teams, especially Atlanta. The Cavs defense was able to limit the Hawk's three point attempts throughout the game and when they did allow threes to go up it was often from a player you could easily live with taking them. Teague, Schroder, Millsap, Horford, Antic and Bazemore combined to shoot seventeen of the Hawk's twenty-three attempts from downtown. I, but more importantly the Cavs, can live with that. Korver shot 2-4 from three, but the meager four attempts is more important than the percentage he shot on those attempts. The Hawks offense was starved of transition buckets and corner threes. The Cavs possibly won the game in the third by holding the Hawks to only sixteen points and only three field goal makes in the entire quarter.
JR reeled off eight points in the final three minutes of the quarter to provide some much needed offense while LeBron rested and it carried over into the 4th. A lot of fans/pundits will look at Smith's point outburst as unsustainable for the Cavaliers which is probably true, but other bench players, mainly Delly and James Jones, missed their fair share of wide open looks which would usually fall. Jones, Shumpert, and Delly were a combined 0/10 from beyond the arc. I'm not so sure that is sustainable either. So even if Smith cools off, expect one of those other guys to eventually heat up.
The Cavs controlled the 4th and expanded the lead until DeMarre Carroll went down with a knee injury. It remains to be seen how Carroll's injury will affect the rest of the series, but it's good to hear it isn't serious. Carroll is due to get the first big contract of his career at the surprising age of 29 and it would have been heartbreaking to see a long term knee injury alter that.
With Carroll out of the lineup, Millsap inherited the duties of trying to stop LeBron on the perimeter. LeBron clearly thought this was amusing as he could be seen smiling as Millsap tried to pick him up at half court. Millsap actually did an admirable job out there though as LeBron seemed to become a bit complacent and overly confident in his ability to break down Millsap off the dribble. The Hawks pushed themselves back into the game as the Cavs offense went stagnant and Kent Bazemore provided a surprising offensive spark, grabbing six points in the last four minutes.
With the game as close as it was going to get, the Cavs up by four, LeBron was finally able to punish Millsap for guarding him so far out on the perimeter and flew to the rim, frightening Kyle Korver in the process, for the game sealing slam.
Honestly, I wouldn't be looking for too many adjustments from the Cavs. Their defensive schemes seemed to sufficiently frustrate the Hawks, Tristan proved capable of dealing with Milsap or Horford down low at times, and Korver was kept in check. These are all areas that fans questioned the Cavaliers on headed into the series. Irving's lack of mobility was definitely exploited at times, but it didn't prove to be as big of a factor as expected.
There's an argument to be made for switching up the starting lineup, as the Hawk's starting lineup did outplay the Cavs when it was on the floor. As much as the Mozgov/Thompson duo out-rebounded the smaller Hawk's frontcourt, it did create the spacing issues that I mentioned earlier. One reason I'd be a big proponent of bringing Mozgov off the bench though is that he is a much better matchup defensively when either Antic or Muscala are on the floor. Either way, I don't suspect Blatt will toy with it at this point as coaches rarely will make such an adjustment coming off a win. The onus is more so on the Hawks to adjust to what the Cavs did and the Cavs just need to be ready with another counter.