ATLANTA – Forget the Big Three.
One is enough for the Cleveland Cavaliers, as long as it’s the King.
LeBron James scored 30 points and the Cavaliers took total command of the Eastern Conference final even without injured star Kyrie Irving, beating the Atlanta Hawks 94-82 on Friday night for a 2-0 lead with the series heading to Ohio.
Cleveland pulled away with a dominating third quarter. James scored 11 points, the Hawks shot just 32 percent (7 of 22), and Cleveland led by as many as 20 before settling for an 84-66 lead.
This was a blowout in every sense.
The final margin, with a bunch of backups on the court, was as close as Hawks had been since midway through the third.
“How much does it help to have LeBron on your team?” Cavaliers coach David Blatt said, repeating a question incredulously. “Do I really have to answer that?”
Irving was scratched before the game because of an ailing left knee. He wasn’t missed a bit, as the Cavaliers cruised to their second straight win in Atlanta.
James assumed many of the ball-handling duties, taking advantage of Atlanta’s DeMarre Carroll clearly not being at 100 percent after he went down with a knee injury late in Game 1. Carroll started after being carried off the court just two nights earlier but hardly looked like the “Junkyard Dog.”
He wasn’t the only one struggling. The Hawks were totally outclassed for one of the few times all season.
“In the playoffs, it takes more,” Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said. “It takes better execution, better screening. You’ve got to do things harder.”
The Cavaliers can wrap up the best-of-seven series simply by winning at home. The next two are in Cleveland, beginning with Game 3 on Sunday night.
This is why James returned to his de facto hometown after spending four years in south Florida, leading the Heat to a pair of NBA titles. The Cavaliers, who have never won a championship, assembled a Miami-like Big Three with James, Irving and Kevin Love, but the King is carrying the load with Irving sidelined and Love out with a season-ending injury.
To be fair, James had a bit of help. Tristan Thompson was a beast on the inside, grabbing 16 rebounds to spark Cleveland to a 47-39 advantage.
When Thompson dunked off a pass from James with just under 5 minutes remaining, the Cavaliers led 93-74 and many Atlanta fans began heading for the exits, surely sensing they had seen their team for the last time in this most unexpected season. Atlanta won a franchise-record 60 games to claim the top seed in the East, but the Hawks have been picked apart by the best player in the world.
James had 31 points in Game 1.
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