Cavs’ improved defense deserves credit for commanding 2-0 Eastern Conference Finals lead

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After Friday night’s 94-82 win in Atlanta, the Cavs are two wins away from a trip to the Finals. And, believe it or not, a large reason for this is their defense. That end of the floor was Cleveland’s Achilles’ heel during the regular season, but they’ve made plenty of adjustments in the playoffs, and through the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, they’ve been able to handle the Hawks’ once-unguardable offense.

Everything the Hawks tried to do on Friday, the Cavs had a counter for. Out of Kyle Korver’s 11 shot attempts, eight were contested, and he shot 2-for-8 on those. With DeMarre Carroll hobbled but still playing big minutes, the Hawks were down one consistent contributor, and that allowed Cleveland’s wing defenders (Iman Shumpert and even the likes of James Jones) to double on Korver more, neutralizing maybe the Hawks’ most dangerous offensive weapon.

In general, the Hawks were ice-cold from long range, shooting just 6-for-26. And some of those shots were simply ones they normally make, but Cleveland has been much more consistent of late in rotating and taking away open looks. And the open looks they have allowed have been for the players that are the least dangerous. They’re still letting Jeff Teague shoot whatever he wants, and he isn’t making them pay for it. He shot 5-for-16 on Friday, including 2-for-6 from three. The Hawks also didn’t get much offensively out of Dennis Schroder or Shelvin Mack, both of whom were forced into larger roles as the Hawks became more banged-up.

Timofey Mozgov’s box-score numbers weren’t that impressive on Friday, but since his midseason trade to the Cavs, he’s been a game-changer for them on the defensive end, a mobile big man who can protect the rim.

And not enough can be said about Tristan Thompson, who has had something of a coming-out party in the playoffs. His dominance on the glass has been key, and he had more defensive rebounds (11) than the Hawks had offensive rebounds as a team (7). He’s been everywhere, and his impact has been impossible for the Hawks to ignore.

The story for the Cavs out of this game is going to be LeBron James, and rightly so. He was sensational in all areas 0f the game on Friday. But as they get closer to the Finals, and likely a matchup with the Warriors, the Cavaliers deserve lots of credit for finally stabilizing their defense into something championship-worthy.