Before the game, Atlanta Hawks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer said he’s “come to just expect the best from LeBron.” Those words proved prophetic as forward LeBron James led his Cleveland Cavaliers to a 121-114 victory over the Atlanta Hawks Thursday night at Philips Arena, pushing their winning streak to 10 games.
LeBron scored 24 points on just 11 shot attempts as he passed former Denver Nuggets forward Alex English for 10th most field goals made in NBA history. But in this game, LeBron proved once again that he is more than a scorer.
“I think he takes a lot of pride in being the best and so if that means shooting better or defending better or passing more. … He just has a knack or that determination to be that guy,” Budenholzer said.
LeBron did it all Thursday night. With 12 assists, LeBron prioritized getting his teammates wide open shots throughout the game. That allowed Cleveland forwards Kevin Love (25 points, 16 rebounds) and Jae Crowder (15 points) to get in the flow of the Cavs offense. Often double teamed in the half-court offense, LeBron eviscerated the Atlanta defense by finding the open man, such as when he whipped the ball to a cutter or to wide-open shooters at the three-point line. That sequence, which repeated itself like clockwork all night, was key to the Cavs splashing 18 threes, the game’s deciding factor.
When LeBron saw an opening on a fast break, he used the Euro step to weave through multiple defenders on his way to a dunk that rocked the arena. With the Cavs lead down to one with less than two minutes to play, it was LeBron who hit a pull-up three as the shot clock wound down to ice the game.
As good as LeBron’s game was offensively, it was his defensive efforts that put the nail in the Hawks’ coffin. His volleyball spike block on Hawks small forward Taurean Prince will make the highlight reels, but it was James’ ability to lock down Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder that proved most impressive. For the totality of the second quarter, Schroder, who finished the game with 27 points, outmaneuvered the Cavs’ defense, consistently blowing by defenders while flipping a seven-point first-quarter deficit into a four-point halftime lead.
“[Schroder’s] very shifty,” LeBron said. “Once he gets a hip on you, he does a great job of keeping you there and finishing at the rim, which you saw in the second quarter when he just kept getting bucket after bucket.”
But beginning in the third quarter, LeBron said he “wanted the challenge” of guarding Schroder. The Hawks point guard would have been just as effective sitting back home in his native Germany for the rest of the night, because with LeBron guarding him, he became a non-factor in the Hawks’ offense.
“I don’t think nobody [sic.] understands how difficult that is,” Cavs guard Dwyane Wade said of shutting down the lightning-quick Schroder. “That’s why [LeBron’s] one of the greatest to ever play this game.”
LeBron said his ability to guard Schroder was a matter of his basketball IQ.
“I know the pros and cons of every player on every team, what they like to do and what [they don’t] like to do on a possession,” LeBron said. “I just use my intelligence on that and live with the results.”
While this extra defensive effort from LeBron may have cost the Cavs some offensive production, Cleveland didn’t need it thanks to solid contributions from Wade (19 points) and reserve forward Jeff Green (12 points).
Nevertheless, the Hawks were able to hang around thanks to strong early contributions from rookie center John Collins (nine points in the first quarter) and silky-smooth shooting from reserves Ersan Ilyasova (22 points on 8-11 shooting) and Marco Belinelli (18 points). But it wasn’t enough to overcome yet another memorable performance from the King.
Cleveland is now 17-7 on the season and rests just 3.5 games behind the East-leading Boston Celtics. Atlanta fell to 5-18 on the season after a blowout loss to the visiting Brooklyn Nets Dec. 4. LeBron and the rest of the Cavaliers will return home to face the Sacramento Kings Dec. 6 while the Hawks travel to Orlando to take on the Magic the same day.