June 26, 2016

Partly sunny

Cavs turn up the defensive heat

Rick Noland

The Gazette

There was cold-shooting Mo Williams, having just missed two wide-open 3-pointers, relentlessly harassing Josh Smith until the Atlanta Hawks power forward finally committed a turnover.

There was 7-foot-3 Zydrunas Ilgauskas blocking a shot by Joe Johnson without leaving his feet.

There was Joe Smith swatting a driving attempt by Marvin Williams.

There was Delonte West blocking Johnson on one possession, then stripping him of the ball on the next.

There was defense, defense, defense and more defense.

That’s why the Cavaliers defeated the Atlanta Hawks 84-74 Monday night at Philips Arena in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

That’s why they swept the Hawks and are now 8-0 in the 2009 playoffs, with all their victories coming by at least 10 points, the longest streak in NBA history.

That’s why they are now 74-16 on the season.

That’s why, with Boston and Orlando tied 2-2 in their series, the Cavaliers will now be off until at least Saturday, as the earliest the Celtics and Hawks can finish is Thursday night.

“We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to win,” West said after a game in which the Cavaliers were far from at their best offensively, yet never trailed in the second half.

LeBron James put up 27 points, eight rebounds and eight assists – when’s the last time his name appeared so late in a story about the Cavaliers? – but, make no mistake, this game was all about Cleveland’s defense.

Subtract Josh Smith and Johnson, who combined to go 15-of-33, and the rest of the Hawks shot an abysmal 20 percent from the field (8-of-40). Even with Smith and Johnson, Atlanta was an abysmal 23-of-73 as a team (.315).

The Hawks also went just 2-of-13 on 3-pointers – Cleveland was 10-of-18, meaning it held a 30-6 scoring edge in that area – and got pounded 48-33 on the boards.

Anderson Varejao had 11 rebounds, including seven on the offensive glass, while Ilgauskas had 10 rebounds to go along with 14 points.

Those two big men were so, well, big that the Cavaliers had a key possession in the fourth quar-ter that lasted longer than some Browns drives.

After Johnson made a pair of free throws to pull the Hawks within five with 1:06 to go, James missed a left-handed drive, but Varejao got the rebound.

With the shot clock winding down again, James missed a left-handed scoop, but Varejao kept the ball alive and Ilgauskas finally tracked it down near the foul line.

The Cavaliers once again used the clock, with James finally finding a wide-open Mo Williams for a 3-pointer that put Cleveland up eight with 52.1 seconds to go.

All told, that possession was a three-play scoring drive that took 1:03.9 off the clock.

Speaking of threes – Browns fans know all too well about scoring in that increment after starting deep in enemy territory – the Cavaliers had four 3-point field goals and a three-point play among their final 17 points of the game.

The Hawks, meanwhile, missed three wide-open 3-pointers – by the invisible Mike Bibby, shameless gunner Flip Murray and Johnson – on one possession with the game very much up for grabs in the fourth period.

Josh Smith also missed a number of open perimeter jumpers, but overall, the Cavaliers were sensational once again at the defensive end.

Sure, West – he had a highlight-reel two-hand slam in the first period and an even-better windmill dunk in traffic in the fourth – was an assassin in putting up 21 points, four rebounds and six assists.

Sure, Williams overcame a shaky start – he hit a three on the first possession of the game and then scored no Mo points the rest of the half – to put up 12 points, four rebounds and five assists.

Sure, the Cavaliers outscored the Hawks 11-2 when James went to the bench at the start of the second quarter.

Those numbers, however, were not the biggest key for the Cavaliers, who were a woeful 14-of-26 at the line (.538) and scored just three points over the final eight minutes of the first quarter.

The biggest key was defense, defense, defense.

And more defense.

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rickn@ohio.net.

Rick Noland About Rick Noland

Rick Noland is the Cavs beat writer for The Gazette and the author of "Over Time," a compilation of stories he's written in more than 30 years as a journalist. He can be reached at 330-721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.