ATLANTA -- It was, by most measures, a fantastic night for LeBron James.
The Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Atlanta Hawks 97-89 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday. James racked up 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists, in the process passing Michael Jordan for first on the all-time playoff list for games with 30 or more points, five or more rebounds and five or more assists. James also halted the biggest slump of his otherwise sterling career by winning Game 1 on the road, something he hadn't done in eight previous attempts.
And for the cherry on top, James sealed the victory with a monstrous dunk with 37.9 seconds left after driving right down the heart of Atlanta’s defense.
Yet there was a degree of dissatisfaction for James because of the way he executed on offense late in the game. His isolation-based possessions contributed greatly to the Cavs’ 18-point fourth-quarter lead being cut down to four and making that aforementioned dunk necessary for Cleveland to stave off the Hawks’ comeback attempt.
“We can’t worry about how many points we’re up or how many points we’re down; we have to continue to play our game. It starts with me. I take all the responsibility for it,” James said. “In the fourth quarter, I played way too much isolation basketball, one-on-one basketball [with] a lot of the defenses set, and I was letting the clock run down way too much. I just had to take the shot or I was giving it to my guys late in the shot clock, and they couldn’t do nothing with it besides shoot it or turn the ball over.”
He used even stronger language during his interview on the court with Fox Sports Ohio’s Allie Clifton immediately after the game, saying, "I allowed them back into the game with my offensive nonsense."
After picking up two early fouls and being mostly a nonfactor in the first quarter, James found something that worked in the second, going to the post time and time again against the Hawks’ DeMarre Carroll. He scored 14 points in the second quarter alone on 7-for-9 shooting, with the majority of his shots coming at the rim.
Carroll, however, sprained his left knee on a fast-break opportunity midway through the fourth quarter and did not return. Atlanta had to resort to different defenders on James, first trying the athletic yet slight Kent Bazemore and then settling with the 6-foot-8, 246-pound Paul Millsap.
When the Hawks changed defenders, James changed his game, looking to blow by Millsap on the wing rather than start possessions on the block.
“Millsap was guarding him and he was guarding him at the perimeter, and we were attacking him that way,” Cavs coach David Blatt said. “That was [James’] advantage. But perhaps we could have put him back down in the post even more against Paul, and if so, that’s on me, not on him.”
James' 18 isolation possessions in Game 1 were the most by any player during the 2015 playoffs, according to SportVu. While he had some success with it, shooting 8-for-17 on those possessions, it clearly took the rest of the Cavs out of any sort of flow. James went iso for at least three Cavs possessions in a row during three separate stretches.
His iso play permeated the Cavs’ play as a team, too. A whopping 35 percent of Cleveland’s possessions in Game 1 came out of isolation play, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Of course, James found the ball in his hands more than usual down the stretch after Kyrie Irving tweaked his left knee in the third quarter and was limited to just 27 minutes on the night.
“It’s tough sometimes with our main ball handler not being on the floor, and that’s Kyrie,” James said. “That’s something that I’m not happy with, something I’m not really comfortable with doing. I can do it, but I don’t like to play that much isolation basketball late in the game. I’d much rather get the ball moving from side to side and get a good look after that.”
Whether James likes it or not, Irving will not magically heal before Game 2 from the left knee tendinitis and strained right foot that have been bothering him for nearly a month, so there is a good chance he’ll have to play point forward once again.
He vowed a more team-centric approach to the offense he'll initiate should that occur.
“I’ll be more conscious about that in Game 2 if that opportunity presents itself, where at least I can get the ball moving to start [the possession] and then maybe at the back side or like the third option, I can get it back at the end,” James said. “At least we get the defense moving instead of them just watching me pound the ball for 24 seconds. That’s not good basketball.”
And it’s not a sustainable approach to basketball if the Cavs hope to keep winning.