USA TODAY Sports
The Cleveland Cavaliers completed their sweep of the Atlanta Hawks Tuesday in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals with an easy 118-88 victory. This marks the Cavs’ first NBA finals berth since 2007. They await the winner of the Warriors-Rockets series in the West, which Golden State leads 3-1.
Facing elimination, Atlanta didn’t put up much of a fight as Cleveland jumped out to a 20-point lead early in the second half and never looked back. LeBron James led the way with yet another spectacular performance as he flirted with a triple-double, notching 23 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists, including this jaw-dropping breakaway dunk early in the first quarter.
Kyrie Irving, who was initially questionable for tonight’s game, suited up and chipped in 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting in just over 21 minutes of action. Doctors have told Irving it’s not possible to do any further damage to the ailing knee that’s limited his playing time in the conference finals, so the Cavs opted to let him play in order to try and keep his rhythm, despite the fact that it was all but a foregone conclusion Cleveland would clinch the series and advance to the Finals.
Aside from Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague, who contributed 16 and 17 points respectively, the Hawks didn’t get much help from the rest of their core unit in what has been a disappointing and demoralizing conclusion to their Cinderella season. DeMarre Carroll has been largely ineffective since suffering a leg injury back in Game 1, and sharpshooter Kyle Korver was lost for the remainder of the postseason after injuring his ankle in Game 2 on a play that has some questioning Matthew Dellavedova‘s perceived recklessness when going after loose balls.
It was precisely his penchant for falling/diving for 50/50 balls that led to an incident which resulted in Al Horford getting ejected from Game 3 for a retaliation elbow drop on Dellavedova. Horford was almost completely missing in action Tuesday in Game 4, scoring just two points on 1-of-6 shooting despite playing nearly 30 minutes.
The Cavs, on the other hand, once again got meaningful contributions from their role players, starting with J.R. Smith, who scored 18 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, and Tristan Thompson, who added 16 points and 11 rebounds, punctuated by this beautiful turnaround buzzer-beater to end the first quarter.
Timofey Mozgov got in on the action as well, chipping in 14 points, seven rebounds, and one poster jam over Millsap off a lob from Irving in the second quarter.
Despite winning a franchise-best 60 games, boasting four All-Stars, and being led by Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks will face all sorts of lingering questions going into the offseason, mostly related to the debate about whether a team-oriented roster like Atlanta’s is capable of winning a championship against superstar-driven teams like Cleveland.
Fair or unfair, it’s something that will haunt them until they can prove otherwise. However, it’s uncommon for a team like the Hawks to make such a giant leap directly into championship contention (although Golden State could prove to be the rare exception). The majority of teams have to experience some growing pains along the way, and that’s essentially a lesson that Atlanta learned the hard way in this series. But it’s certainly no reason to panic and shake up a roster that’s had such tremendous success. Considering impending free agencies of Millsap and Carroll, though, there’s still a chance the Hawks could look very different come 2015-2016.
For now, they’ll have to sit back and watch the NBA finals from home, which begin June 4, despite rumors that the league was considering moving the start date up if both conference finals ended early in sweeps. That means the Cavs (and Irving, in particular) will have 10 full days of rest between now and then. History points to it being a matchup against the Warriors, which would feature an epic showdown between the current MVP and a four-time winner.