In Game 3, Atlanta did something it had yet to do against Cleveland in this series: win a quarter that mattered (the second). It helped the Hawks stay close and created some drama for the fourth quarter. But Cleveland, increasingly looking like a true champion, elevated its game to another level and left Atlanta feeling like Detroit did a week ago.
Cleveland can beat the Hawks with its upgraded offense and smashmouth defense. Or, as in Game 3, the Cavs can go old-school: They pulverized the Hawks on the boards, locked down their best offensive threats and gave them huge doses of LeBron.
• Down 3-0, the Hawks can come up with a few simple strategies to try to stay close in the fourth, and perhaps find a way to get a win.
How can they win one or two quarters?
It's painfully obvious that they have no answer for LeBron. But what they can do is focus more specifically on one part of his game to clamp down on.
What do they choose? They can't try to make him one-dimensional, because he just scored 47 points while racking up 8 assists (of the 20 total buckets made by Cavs not named LeBron). It's impossible to imagine that they can keep him from getting into the paint, either.
But perhaps they can start guarding him tighter as soon as he crosses half court, in an effort to keep him from taking and making so many 3s. He hit five in Game 3, and is 10-for-21 in the series. Many of them are given to him by a defense that is bent on not letting him drive. But he can drive anyway, so working on nullifying his perimeter game is a worthwhile effort. Force him to finish in the teeth of the defense.
• Another goal the Hawks can aim for is neutralizing the Cavs on the glass. Cleveland is controlling both backboards -- the Cavs outrebounded the Hawks 46-23 in Game 3 -- by being far more physical and also more aware of where the shot is coming from, so they are getting superior positions. Atlanta had been doing OK in Game 3 when Zaza Pachulia was playing, but once he was ejected, the rout was on.
The pressure here has to be on all the Hawks' players, not just their frontcourt. Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby played a combined 84 minutes and grabbed just 5 defensive rebounds. They have to dig down and come up with more than that. The frontcourt has to do their part, too, and must race back to hit their man after leaving to shade LeBron.
• The third part of their strategy has to be all about Johnson. He looks frustrated and pained, but he needs a big scoring night -- like he had against Boston in last year's playoffs -- to keep Atlanta in the game. Cleveland continues to double him, typically with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, on wing catches below the foul line extended. Here are some methods that should work for JJ:
-- He can catch and shoot right away, provided he's in shooting range on the catch. So it's vital for him and his screener to start the screening action in proper spots.
-- He can advance the ball himself, staying in the middle of the floor, which gives him more passing options if doubled. Working to the outer parts of the paint for a simple pull-up jumper over Delonte West seems as good as anything he could get in any other set. The Hawks can put Ilgauskas into ballscreen actions, forcing him to hedge in a direction opposite Johnson, thus making it tough on him to race over to double JJ if he gets the ball.
-- Finally, using Johnson as a screener first will get him his best looks before the double comes. Screening-the-screener actions, specifically with Johnson screening for guys in the middle before being screened for to get a wing catch, make it tough on Cleveland to help the initial screening recipient, and also on JJ.
• Since guarding LeBron is impossible for the Hawks, they might go with Flip Murray for 40-plus minutes in place of Maurice Evans, simply for the offensive gifts he brings.
• Cleveland seemed a little casual in its offensive sets through three quarters, relying mostly on LeBron to make things happen. Better screens, sharper cuts and quicker passes will get the Cavs back in the flow.
• Atlanta sent Josh Smith to the short corner in its early offense so he was in position to catch and dunk right away. This was an effort to take advantage of Cleveland's help defense, which is always so focused on filling up the ballside box. LeBron and Anderson Varejao are very aware helpers, but when Smith is in the short corner or the middle of the paint, they have to be more alert to his presence.
If Smith set his mind to being in those spots at all times, Cleveland would have a much tougher time defending Atlanta's primary actions. But he isn't there a lot, so Cleveland just has to respect his positioning occasionally.
• Smith had some success with his jump shot in Game 3. If this means he'll end up on the perimeter a lot more, Atlanta is already beat.
• If Johnson gets going, Smith can have a field day inside, as Cleveland will send more resources to slow JJ.
• Cleveland outscored the Hawks by 14 points in the second half, yet LeBron's teammates made just 1 of 12 3s. What happens if the Cavs get hot?
• LeBron's desire to sweep another opponent was apparent in Game 3, so it's likely we'll see even more grit and determination. And he's really feeling his shot right now.
It's true Atlanta is hobbled with some nagging injuries. It has robbed the Hawks of some confidence, and a lack of confidence is a recipe for disaster against a team like Cleveland. They'll probably show up with as much pride as possible to start the game, but this Cleveland train is rolling hot right now, full of talent, experience, belief and chemistry.
Cleveland wins Game 4.
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for more than 40 NBA, European and D-League players. Those players include Kevin Martin, Rob Kurz, Luol Deng, Courtney Lee and Tyrus Thomas. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.