Add yet another milestone to the record books. The Cavaliers secured the Eastern Conference regular season title for a second straight season last night while becoming the 18th occurrence (and 9th different franchise) of a team winning 60 games in back-to-back years.
It was a meaningful night in Cleveland but one that was definitely contested throughout. After being swept by the Cavs in the post-season last year, the Hawks put up yet another solid fight during the 2009-2010 season. Unfortunately, it resulted in an all-too-familiar result as Atlanta fell to 0-3 in the season series with the finale coming at Phillips Arena for game #82.
Holding tight defensively down the stretch yet again provided ample time for LeBron James and the offense to finally get moving. The game had been tight during the entire contest but the Cavs pulled away comfortably in the closing minutes. In fact, the five-point margin was much closer than the way the ending actually played out.
The difference last night was the timely defense yet again. In the road game against Atlanta back in late December, the Cavs held the team scoreless for the bulk of a dozen minutes between the third and fourth quarters. The Hawks took a 74-72 lead with just under eight minutes to go in this game, but before they could react, the Cavs had taken a 10-point lead with a minute left. In those entire seven minutes, Atlanta scored only two points.
Let’s tackle the rest of the the recap in bullet points:
Unbelievable stat of the day: The Cavs are on a 27-10 (.730) tear against teams currently slated to head to the NBA Playoffs. This has come since starting the regular season 0-2 in this category with losses to both Boston and Toronto. Last year, the team was 30-13 (.698) overall in this category during the regular season, but finished the year on a more pedestrian 19-9 (.679) streak. Hopefully the continued fine play against good opponents will transfer into better success in the actual playoffs.
Now going to the actual game, JJ Hickson was the undoubted star. It’s getting harder and harder to ignore his constant improvement this season and he showed his skills yet again last night. The Hawks are supposed to be one of the more athletic Eastern Conference teams, especially with their versatile frontcourt, but JJ picked them apart for a career-high 16 rebounds alongside eight points and two blocks. Seven of his boards were on the offensive glass as Cleveland dominated the rebounding battle overall 55-36.
Credit the defense on Mike Bibby, Jamal Crawford and Joe Johnson as superb in this one. The announcers were talking about it throughout the second half but it’s just staggering to see what they really did out there. For the game, the three guards combined to score just 35 points in 92 minutes, finishing 14-for-42 from the field with 10 assists. You will beat Atlanta anytime you are able to control these three as effectively as the Cavs did. It was an off night offensively for Delonte West and Anthony Parker, but they must have been doing something smart on defense at least.
The Hawks game was a huge comeback statement for Mo Williams. I have been one of Mo’s biggest defenders since he returned from the injured list. Yes, I know he sucked in those first few games, but offensively and defensively he continues to get better and last night showed exactly what he is capable of doing against playoff teams. He scored 24 points, dished two assists, grabbed four rebounds and also rejected a career-high four shots on the night. The point total was his highest since January 3rd and he now has his first back-to-back 20+ point games since recording five straight in late December. The Cavs are an incredibly dangerous offensive team with Shaq back in the lineup along with Mo and Antawn./li>
Antawn Jamison expects to play Sunday in Boston. The power forward went down in the fourth quarter with a shoulder stinger, but this injury should be less serious than the others that have hurt Cleveland recently. Brian Windhorst wrote in his beat blog the that Jamison felt fine just 30 minutes following the game and could have returned to action if absolutely necessary. Definitely good news to hear as any playoff-type road contest is tough enough without Shaquille O’Neal.
Last night’s game brings of the topic of who would you rather face in the playoffs: Atlanta or Boston? My father suggested prior to the contest yesterday that it might be wise for the Cavs to help ATL move up to secure the #3 seed in the Eastern Conference. That way, the Cavaliers would be more likely to play the aging Celtics in the second round. Not sure if I agree with this logic at all, as Cleveland is now 14-2 against Atlanta over the past three seasons including playoffs. Meanwhile, the Cavs and Boston had a 15+ game streak just snapped this year where the home team won every single match up. The Hawks have very little history with playoff success on their roster and resemble a franchise built much more like the Washington Wizards than the Oklahoma City Thunder. Give me Atlanta in the playoffs any day although I’m not too scared of Boston either.
(Photo Credit: Reuters/Aaron Josefczyk)