Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer’s latest strategy against the Cleveland Cavaliers was to make Kevin Love hit enough shots to beat the Hawks.
Love obliged on Sunday in Game 4, scoring 27 points, including eight 3-pointers, in the Cavs’ series-clinching 100-99 win over the Hawks at Philips Arena.
The Cavaliers advanced to the Eastern Conference finals for the second straight season and will await the winner of the Toronto Raptors-Miami Heat series.
Kyrie Irving scored 21 points and had eight assists, and LeBron James added 21 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists and made a big defensive stand on the Hawks’ final possession.
With Cleveland leading 100-99 with 10 seconds to play, James tied up Atlanta point guard Dennis Schroder on a drive inside the paint and won the ensuing jump ball to help the Cavs hang on.
Cleveland were sizzling hot from the 3-point line throughout the series, hitting 16 on Sunday – 10 in the first half – and made 62 in the final three games of the series.
“I think we hit our stride at the right time,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. “The last three or four weeks of the season we really started playing good basketball on both ends of the court, and it’s carried over.”
Schroder paced a balanced Atlanta offence that had five players finish in double figures. He hit back-to-back layups late in the fourth quarter, the second putting the Hawks ahead 97-96 with 1:31 to play.
But he could not put one past James on his last shot.
James scored on a goaltending call and a jumper in the final two minutes, and Tristan Thompson also had a key block on Schroder late for the Cavs.
Cleveland can look forward to some rest.
In the other Eastern Conference semifinal, Toronto lead Miami 2-1 in what has been a tight, physical series that has seen both teams suffer injuries to key players.
The Cavs are unbeaten in the playoffs with James, Irving and Love all healthy.
“We’re in a great rhythm right now,” James said. “We know where everyone is on the floor and exactly where we should be.”
Schroder finished with 21 points, and Paul Millsap added 19 for Atlanta.
Atlanta enjoyed their biggest lead of the series, up 12 in the second quarter, but it never felt like the Hawks were in control or would be able to withstand an inevitable challenge from the Cavaliers.
That challenge came in the third quarter, and when Love completed a four-point play with a free throw that followed his eighth 3-pointer. Cleveland led 79-75 and looked poised to put away the Hawks in the fourth.
Every time Love got open for a 3-pointer, the Philips Arena crowd gasped in anticipation. Eight times their gasps were followed by groans.
Budenholzer threw everything at the Cavs, switching up his starting line-up and intentionally fouling Thompson, but none of the adjustments produced a win.
“They create a lot of mismatches,” Budenholzer said. “We tried to take away significant parts of their team and their offence, and our players executed everything we asked of them, I would say, at a very high level.
“At some point, Kevin Love may be an option that they have to get to, and he has to make enough shots for four quarters or four games, whatever it may be. It’s really on me at the end of the day. Our players did everything I asked them to do.”
The Hawks head into the offseason knowing they are not any closer to beating Cleveland, despite making their ninth consecutive playoff appearance – the longest active streak in the East.
It is the second straight season Atlanta have been swept out of the playoffs by James and the Cavaliers.
The question is do they blow up the core of the team that has led them to multiple playoff series wins the past two seasons? Both centre Al Horford and swingman Kent Bazemore are in contract years.
“Our season just ended, minutes ago,” Budenholzer said when asked about the offseason. “At the appropriate time, we’ll sit down, we’ll discuss. I know we feel strongly about our group.”