LOS ANGELES: LeBron James led the way as the Cleveland Cavaliers finally broke the Atlanta Hawks’ resistance to seal a 104-93 victory and take a 1-0 lead in their Eastern Conference semi-final playoff series on Monday (Tuesday in Manila).
James scored 25 points and came up with two big steals late in the fourth quarter to help the Cavaliers seize the early initiative in the best-of-seven series at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena.
Kyrie Irving added 21 points with eight assists and one rebound as the well-rested Cavaliers dominated against a weary Atlanta.
The Cavs had benefited from more than a week off after wrapping up a 4-0 sweep of the Detroit Pistons in the first round.
A satisfied James suggested Cleveland had benefited from eight days off against an Atlanta side who were taken to six games by the Boston Celtics in the previous round.
“Give a lot of credit to the Atlanta Hawks, they brought it today,” James said.
“Obviously, you could tell they went through a longer series than us.
“We’re going to get better as the season goes on but it’s a great start to the series.”
James meanwhile was pleased with his own contribution to the victory.
“I had to make some plays for this team,” James said. “They look at me as the leader of this team every single night.”
Germany’s Dennis Schroder was the top scorer for Atlanta, pouring on a game-high 27 points with six assists and three rebounds.
Paul Millsap added 17 points while Kent Bazemore finished with 16 points for the beaten visitors.
Atlanta had fought back to within four at 92-88 with 3:11 left on the clock before James dispossessed Schroder and converted a three-point play to stretch the Cavs lead.
A great team
“I just like how our guys come together when things get tough now,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “That’s the biggest thing for us. We’ve got a great team. When things get tough, we have to come together even more.”
Game two in the series takes place in Cleveland on Wednesday.
In Monday’s other game, Russell Westbrook scored 29 points as the Oklahoma City Thunder bounced back to beat San Antonio 98-97.
Just two days after suffering a 32-point blowout defeat on Saturday, Westbrook and Kevin Durant both produced big games to propel the Thunder to a crucial victory.
Westbrook’s haul was matched by another masterful performance from Durant, who added 28 points to underscore his value to the franchise as free agency looms.
LaMarcus Aldridge meanwhile contributed 41 points for the Spurs in vain, with three assists and eight rebounds.
Kawhi Leonard weighed in with 14 points for San Antonio, with Argentina’s Manu Ginobili the only other Spurs player to make double digits with 11.
The Thunder were forced to endure a nervous finish as the Spurs fought back to within one point in the closing seconds.
Durant made a superb jumper with 33 seconds left to give the Thunder a 96-91 lead but the Spurs hit back with an Aldridge three-pointer.
Westbrook made two free throws with 18.3 seconds on the clock to give Oklahoma City a 98-94 lead.
But a clumsy foul on Aldridge as he attempted a three-pointer gifted San Antonio three free throws which he duly drained to make it 98-97.
San Antonio had one last stab at snatching victory but Patty Mills’ three-point attempt with two seconds left missed and the Thunder were home.
“It’s a hard place to win, and there’s a reason they have a record here at home that they do,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said, referring to San Antonio’s formidable 40-1 regular season record at home.
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich blamed his team’s offensive organization for the defeat.
“Our organization offensively was really poor,” Popovich said. “I thought we lost the game three times tonight and got back in it. So give our guys credit for hanging in there at least. But individually we have to play smarter.”