CLEVELAND –- With the clock winding down to the two-minute mark and the Atlanta Hawks desperately trying to do something they’ve never done, LeBron James took a pass from Kyrie Irving, drove and scored inside the paint while being fouled.
James flexed his right biceps while pounding on it with his left hand. Once again, King James was too strong and too much for the Hawks to handle.
While Cleveland had to sweat this one out a bit, blowing an 18-point, third-quarter lead, the Cavs still own the Hawks’ number in the playoffs.
Improving to 9-0 in the postseason against the Hawks, James and the Cavs took Game 1, 104-93, at the Quicken Loans Arena.
This might have been the Hawks’ best chance to strike, with the Cavaliers coming off an eight-day layoff. But after taking a one-point lead with 4:28 left, the Hawks couldn’t make enough plays down the stretch and Cleveland closed with a 17-5 run.
James, who averaged 30.3 points, 11.0 rebounds and 9.3 assists against the Hawks in an Eastern Conference finals sweep last year, didn’t dominate Atlanta like he had in the past. But he made all the right plays when he had to, finishing with 25 points, 9 assists and 7 rebounds on Monday.
Irving added 21 points and eight assists. Dennis Schroder led the Hawks with a career-high 27 points.
The Cavaliers had been off since sweeping the Detroit Pistons on April 24. But they showed no signs of any rust early on, burying 9 of 21 3-point attempts and shooting 44.4 percent overall in the first half.
Much of the talk entering the series surrounding the Hawks was of their much-improved defense. Atlanta ranked second only to San Antonio in defensive efficiency this season and was third in the category in the postseason entering the night, trailing the Warriors and Spurs.
But in Game 1, the Cavs could find a hole in the Atlanta defense whenever they wanted. James or Irving either created or found open looks.
While everything seemed to come in rhythm for the Cavs, the Hawks’ offense struggled badly. Atlanta missed 13 of its first 18 3-point shots and shot just 29.8 percent from the field. Somehow, the Hawks only trailed 51-41 at halftime, even though it felt as if they should have been behind by a lot more.
The Cavs looked like they would cruise when James started a fastbreak with a steal before finishing it with a rim-shaking dunk to shove Atlanta down 72-54 with just under four minutes left in the third. But Schroder sparked a stunning comeback as the Hawks went on a 26-7 tear to take an 80-79 lead with 8:01 remaining.
They blew an 18-point blown lead on Monday, but the Cavaliers were too much for Atlanta when it mattered.
Game 2 is in Cleveland on Wednesday night.