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No rest for Cavs' defense against Hawks

POSTED: May 7, 2009 12:29 a.m.

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Arms flailing, fists pumping, a crazed look behind those designer eyeglasses, Cleveland coach Mike Brown nearly jumped out of his suit.

A few feet away, Cavaliers reserve forward Wally Szczerbiak was sprawled on the Quicken Loans Arena floor after taking a charge against Atlanta’s Marvin Williams in the third quarter of Cleveland’s 99-72 win over the Hawks on Tuesday night.

Brown wanted to rush out to Szczerbiak, pick him up and maybe plant a kiss on his cheek. Same for LeBron James, who moments earlier let Joe Johnson run him over in the foul lane at full speed, drawing a charge and stopping a 2-on-1 break.

To Brown, those selfless plays are more thrilling than any dunk or length-of-the-court buzzer beater.

"Man, those are exciting plays for me," Brown said, shaking his head and gritting his teeth for effect. "Those guys are sacrificing for the team."

Defense defines Brown. And defense is what drives his clampdown Cavaliers, who held the Hawks to just 28 points — 11 in the fourth quarter — and 30 percent shooting during the second half of their series-opening rout, Cleveland’s fifth straight double-digit win in the NBA playoffs.

The Cavaliers are allowing just 76.8 points per game, more than 11 fewer than the next team — Houston (87.9) — still alive in the postseason. Cleveland has been doing it with defense all season. The Cavs were ranked No. 1 in points allowed, the only team to hold opponents to fewer than 92 per game. They also finished second in defensive field-goal percentage and first in defensive 3-point percentage.

On Cleveland’s court, the defense never rests. Well, rarely.

Following a nine-day layoff after sweeping Detroit in the first round, the Cavs showed some lapses in the first half of Game 1. With Hawks high-flying forward Josh Smith dominating down low for 17 points and Mike Bibby knocking down four 3-pointers and scoring 14, Atlanta shot 56 percent with 14 assists in the opening 24 minutes and were within 49-44 at halftime.

Inside Cleveland’s locker room, players heard it from Brown and his staff.

"The coaches got on us," center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said. "They were shooting 56 percent from the field or so, getting some dunks. We came out flat or lackadaisical. The second half was different, we got some stops and they only got one offensive rebound."

The Cavs blew it open by getting physical with Smith, holding him to five second-half points. Bibby also was held to five and Joe Johnson, who averaged 21.4 during the regular season, scored just 11 as Delonte West and James took turns on Atlanta’s top scorer.

"They did a great job defensively as far as double teaming and trying to keep the ball out of my hands," Johnson said. "I just thought in the second half, we just kind of gave up."

Atlanta must do a better job of handling Cleveland’s intense defensive pressure or this series could be over quickly.

The Hawks kept center Al Horford out of practice Wednesday with a sore right ankle. Atlanta coach Mike Woodson said that Horford, who missed Game 6 of the Miami series, had "some fatigue" in his ankle and would be a game-time decision for tonight’s Game 2.

Woodson felt his squad came out flat in the third quarter, and the Cavs seized the chance to throw a submission hold on the Hawks.

"One play that really stands out, we stole the ball and Joe tried to throw it up the floor and LeBron stole it back," he said. "We could have cut the lead to six. That was a big, huge play."

James has been making them on both ends all season, which is why he was presented with the league’s MVP trophy before the game by commissioner David Stern. On Wednesday, James earned another honor: His first NBA All-Defensive first team selection.

James said he worked to become a better defender.

"It was a conscious effort on my part to just come in this season with a different mindset on the defensive end," he said.

For Brown, James is a coaching godsend. Not only is he clearly the club’s best offensive player, but his willingness to take a charge or dive on the floor is contagious.

James may also lead the Cavs in floor burns.

"When he does it, everybody else has to do it," Brown said. "They gotta do it. I don’t even have to say anything. All I have to do is put it up on the film and let people see that. And when somebody doesn’t do it, man, I can go off because my best player is doing it."



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