CLEVELAND – Alone under his basket, LeBron James braced himself for Atlanta’s onslaught.
As two Hawks swooped down on a fast break, James held his ground, stepped in front of Joe Johnson and took the charge. It was a smart play that showed why James is the NBA’s most valuable player.
James dunked the first time he touched the ball and scored 34 points – 22 in the first half – as the Cavaliers, who waited nine days between playoff games after a first-round sweep, shook off some early rust and pulled away for a 99-72 win over the Hawks in their Eastern Conference semifinal opener on Tuesday.
Showing why he was voted MVP in a landslide, James added 10 rebounds, three assists and four steals as the top-seeded Cavs won their fifth straight lopsided game in a post-season that has so far mirrored the best regular season in franchise history.
James stuffed the stat sheet again, but it was his defensive stop on Johnson in the third quarter that meant as much as anything.
“An MVP taking a charge on the break?” Cavs guard Mo Williams said. “That’s amazing. You get that effort from him, how could I not take a charge? The whole night was about him and he came out and showed why he is the MVP – in the first quarter.”
The Cavs weren’t sure how the layoff would affect them.
“It was unbelievable how sharp we were,” James said. “We just picked up where we left off.”
Williams added 21 points for Cleveland, which became the first team since the 2004 Detroit Pistons to win each of its five playoff games by double figures.
With the Cavs up by 21, James was pulled with 4:29 left – extra down time before Game 2 on Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavaliers are 42-2.
Josh Smith scored 22 and Mike Bibby 19 for the Hawks, who needed seven games to get past Miami and are playing in the second round for the first time in 10 years. They weren’t happy with their start in this series, going 9-for-30 and scoring just 28 points after halftime.
“It was very disappointing,” Smith said. “We advanced to the next level in the post-season and it’s kind of disheartening not to be able to play and bring the effort in the second half.”
James was presented with his MVP trophy before the game by commissioner David Stern, who complimented the 24-year-old superstar’s selflessness, saying “you led the team by playing team first.” James did that for all 35 minutes on the floor.
Stern’s praise was nearly drowned out by more than 20,000 fans chanting “M-V-P!” in another salute to James, the first Cavaliers player to win the award.
Not wanting to take part in Cleveland’s celebration, the Hawks stayed in their locker room until after James addressed the crowd.
James was touched by the outpouring of love.
“It was a very emotional time for me,” he said.
Perhaps out of sync because of the layoff, the Cavs were sluggish in the first half and didn’t take control until the third quarter, when they outscored the Hawks 28-17. As usual, Cleveland relied on its defence to turn things around.
“I think the team knew and I knew the ceremony was going to happen, but we still had a game to play,” James said. “We didn’t want to rain in the ceremony by not preparing ourselves the best way to come out and play. We had some lapses in the first half, but we got it going in the third and fourth quarter and took care of the game.”
Not long after James drew the foul on Johnson, Wally Szczerbiak moved his feet to take a charge, a defensive play that had Cavs coach Mike Brown dancing on the sideline as if it was a game-winning shot.
“No matter how much rust we have on our bones, we can still play defence,” Brown said.
James had zero assists at halftime, a sign that Cleveland’s offence wasn’t in rhythm.
He finally set up Williams for a three-pointer and then another as the Cavs opened an 11-point lead in the third quarter. James then went on a personal nine-point run.
James arrived so early that he was on the floor shooting before the lights were fully illuminated inside Quicken Loans Arena.
To a seat-shaking soundtrack that included Jay-Z and Snoop Doog, James worked his way around the 3-point line, dropping shot after shot off crisp passes from Cavs assistant coach Chris Jent – more than three hours before tipoff. Apparently, MVP also stands for Most Valuable Practitioner.
“He’s the MVP of the league and he’s the most aggressive guy on the court,” Smith said. “We can’t stop him individually. We’ve got to do a collective effort on him and I felt we didn’t help each other out.”
Notes: After playing 192 times during the regular season, it was the first post-season matchup between Cleveland and Atlanta. … During the Cavaliers’ break, forward Sasha Pavlovic got married to longtime girlfriend Dunja Karisik. … James’ intimate MVP ceremony at his high school on Monday made a big impression on Brown. “I was more in awe of the setting than anything else,” he said. “That was a great idea, and with the banners overhead and his jersey, it felt a little like “Hoosiers.”