CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Cavaliers have not played since finishing off a four-game sweep of the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals last Sunday, but that week-plus layoff comes to an end, as they start their best-of-seven semifinal series against the Atlanta Hawks at Quicken Loans Arena tonight.
Here are five reasons why the Cavaliers will beat the Hawks despite the long layoff in-between games.
HUNGER TO COMPETE
Twelve days since being in front of the home fans, the Cavaliers return to Quicken Loans Arena tonight, where they will host the Hawks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
“Very anxious,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said of his team’s mindset. “You can tell we’ve been off for eight days, and the guys are ready to start playing, getting ready, getting focused for the game, so it’s time and we’re ready to play.
“You’ve definitely got to do what you do. You can’t get cute and overthink it. We have our principles. We know what we want to do going into the game, and if things don’t work, you have to adjust, but we know what we want to do right now and guys are ready.”
Although the Cavaliers had a long layoff, Lue hopes they take lessons from San Antonio’s performance in their second-round opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder. After a similar layoff to that of the Cavaliers, the Spurs coasted to a 124-92 win over the Thunder in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals Saturday night.
In order to avoid a lackluster effort against a Hawks team that they swept out of the Eastern Conference Finals last season, Cavaliers small forward Richard Jefferson knows the Cavaliers must focus on the present, not anything that happened in the past.
“I’ve been on a few teams that have had breaks, and you do the same thing every year: rest versus rust, all that other B.S., but at the end of the day, you work extremely hard to get a couple extra days and you wait for your next opponent,” Jefferson said.
“For the most part, you’re just waiting to see who you play, waiting to prepare and for Game 1, it’s a new series. It doesn’t matter what you shot, how well you played, what adjustments you made in the first series. The second series is different against a better team.”
Sometimes, a basketball team can rely too much on the three-point shot, but the Cavaliers count that more as an offensive weapon than a crutch.
In a four-game sweep of the Pistons, the Cavaliers averaged 34.5 three-point attempts per game, and knocked down 14.3 of those shots every night, an average of 41.3 percent from beyond the arc.
“Considering that the No. 1 team the last two years is the most deadly team from three, I’m going to side on the three-point shot,” Jefferson said. “I think San Antonio has even used it to their advantage over the years.
“As the game of basketball evolves, people are starting to see how important it can be in your game. No one had ever hit 300 threes, and Steph (Curry) hits 400 threes in the best season ever, the best regular season ever.
“Can it be dangerous? Yes. You have to have a good balance, and I think most good teams do. Whenever you have LeBron on the floor, we know we’re going to get points in the paint. We know we’re going to get attacks to the basket, so if other guys like Swish, Kyrie and Kevin are using the three, it’s probably to our favor.”
J.R. SMITH’S UNCANNY SHOOTING ABILITIES
Veteran shooting guard J.R. Smith has never been one to shy away from taking long-range shots, and he served as the Cavaliers’ leading marksman from beyond the three-point arc. Smith knocked down an average of 4.3 triples per game and buried 51.5 percent of his looks from three-point range.
In the Cavaliers’ 107-90 win over the Pistons in Game 2 of the opening-round series, Smith knocked down seven of his 13 looks from three-point range. And going forward, Lue wants Smith to continue shooting his kind of shots within the rhythm of the offense.
“I like it when it’s a little more contested than wide open when J.R. shoots the basketball,” Lue said. “That’s what he’s great at, but he had eight threes down there in Game 2 in Atlanta. We were moving the basketball. We were playing with pace and pushing the pace.
“J.R., he’s the one that benefits from that because they can try to get back in transition for Kyrie and Kevin or our bigs when they’re running up the floor, and that’s leaving J.R. open. When we’re playing with pace and playing fast, that helps and benefits J.R.”
FOCUS ON THE PRESENT
Despite playing without the services of power forward Kevin Love (dislocated left shoulder/surgery) and with a severely hobbled point guard, Kyrie Irving, being limited to just two games, the Cavaliers swept the Hawks, the top-ranked team in the Eastern Conference, out of the East Finals last spring.
And during the 2015-2016 regular season, the Cavaliers had plenty of success against the Hawks, but those past accomplishments mean nothing to Cleveland small forward LeBron James, who is focused squarely on doing whatever is necessary to beat Atlanta.
“At the end of the day, what happened in the past doesn’t decide what happens today,” James said. “We’ve got to focus on the now, and that’s a team coming off a very challenging first-round series against the Celtics, and we understand those coaches have their guys well prepared and well driven for the series.
“My only concern is how we can be well prepared for Monday night’s game. That’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter if you can win 100 straight games versus somebody. If you lose four in a row, then you’re out of the playoffs. All of the things that happened in the past do not matter to our focus this week.”