LeBron James, Cavaliers Making Quick Work of Atlanta Hawks Because They Must

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 25, 2015

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When the final buzzer sounded on the 114-111 overtime win that gave the Cleveland Cavaliers a 3-0 Eastern Conference Finals lead over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, two men hit the floor for very different reasons.

Jeff Teague sat down near the right elbow, dejected after Shelvin Mack couldn't convert either of two looks at a game-tying three on the Hawks' final possession. The finality of his team's three-game deficit seemed to set in, and with it, resignation.

LeBron James collapsed in a heap at the top of the arc. On all fours with his head down, he was totally, utterly spent.

Rightfully so.

James carried his Cavaliers with 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists in 47 cramp-filled, knee-tweaking, bump-and-bruise-accumulating minutes. The wear and tear of a career-high 37-shot game—not to mention the physical fatigue that came with carrying 14 other Cavaliers on his back—left him completely exhausted.

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No player in league history has ever exceeded James' point, rebound and assist totals in a single regular-season or playoff game, per Basketball-Reference.com. Charles Barkley came closest with a 43-point, 15-rebound, 10-assist effort in 1993.

No Kevin Love. No Kyrie Irving (out for the second straight game with a sore knee). Just James.

And he reached those totals after beginning the game with 10 consecutive missed field goals. This wasn't a case of a superstar starting hot and riding a wave of momentum. James dragged himself out of a rut and hauled his team with him, fighting for tough hoops inside because of a mostly MIA jumper.

Until, of course, the Cavaliers desperately needed a three.

That's how you get shot charts like this, from NBA.com:

Courtesy: NBA.com

The postgame scene was a dramatic one, and maybe LeBron milked the moment just a tad. Adopting a modest, pensive tone, he spoke to TNT's Rachel Nichols on the broadcast: "For me as a leader, no matter how I'm feeling, I've got to try to make some plays. ... I felt like I couldn't give more. But then it was mind over matter."

Raise an eyebrow at the melodrama if you want, but don't doubt for a second the difficulty of what James did in Game 3.

And don't underestimate the urgency that will define Game 4—for both the Hawks and the Cavs.

Atlanta's motivation is obvious: It's playing for pride now, hoping to prevent the end of its season for as long as possible. Despite Kyle Korver's absence, DeMarre Carroll's mangled knee and the inevitability of defeat (no NBA team has ever erased a 3-0 deficit), the Hawks will bring a fight.

Matthew Dellavedova made sure the lopsided series won't lack for tension in its final stages.

He got tangled up with Al Horford late in the first half, falling (or lunging, depending on your perspective) into Horford's legs in a manner that at least made the question of his intent a reasonable one—especially after his infamous leglock on Taj Gibson in the conference semifinals and his dive into Korver's ankle in Game 2.

Officials gave Horford a flagrant-2 foul and ejected him after a retaliatory forearm shiver to the Cavs guard, much to the dismay of observers like Turner Sports' Brent Barry:

After the contest, Horford was measured in his response to reporters, per CBS Sports:

Cavaliers head coach David Blatt was cagey about Dellavedova's alleged pattern of behavior during an in-game interview, per Dan Labbe of the Northeast Ohio Media Group:

Dellavedova's controversial play aside, Cleveland's physicality was key in Game 3; it won an otherwise statistically even contest by dominating on the boards, 56-42. And its 19 offensive rebounds helped offset a rough shooting night that kicked off with a 6-of-27 misfire-fest in the first quarter.

The Hawks will be motivated, physical and intense in Game 4. But the Cavaliers have had the edge in rugged play for most of this series. It's just that Cleveland must do all it can to make sure it doesn't have to match Atlanta's physicality in Games 5, 6 or 7.

There's little chance the Cavs will lose this series. No team in their position ever has.

The Cavaliers, as harsh as it sounds for the Hawks, have to look ahead now.

May 24, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) looks to make a play aginat Atlanta Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll (5) in game three of the Eastern Conference Finals of the NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Cred
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Assuming the inevitability of a 3-0 lead holds and the Golden State Warriors finish off the Houston Rockets in short order, they'll be waiting for the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. And they are a different animal than anything James or the Cavs have faced so far.

Actually, the Warriors aren't an animal at all. They're a machine—weakness-free, sustained by their own superstar and hellbent on completing a juggernaut's run into the pantheon of the NBA's all-time greatest teams.

Before facing that basketball engine of dominance, the Cavs and James need a break. They need to get healthy—to the extent that's possible this late in the year.

They need to extract all the value of James' otherworldly effort in Game 3 by finishing things off in Game 4 so they can rest for as long as possible.

But the Hawks, despite trailing 3-0, haven't stopped fighting yet. And we shouldn't expect them to now.

Game 4 will be one of those truly rare affairs in which the team defending against elimination may not feel as much urgency as the team trying to execute it.

In Tuesday's pivotal contest, James, Teague, the Cavs and the Hawks will all pick themselves up off the floor and charge at each other full steam ahead one more time.

Strap in.

Grant Hughes covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @gt_hughes.