The Atlanta Hawks set the series' early tone with a furious Game 1 comeback. Though it still ended in defeat, the second half proved they weren't going to roll over for the Cleveland Cavaliers and bow out of the second round without a fight.
In Game 2, the Cavs sent a contradictory message.
En route to a 123-98 victory Wednesday night and a crushing 2-0 series lead, the Cavaliers forgot missing a three-point attempt is permissible under the NBA's rules and regulations. When both teams retreated to their respective locker rooms at halftime, Cleveland already boasted a 74-38 advantage behind a record-shattering 18 treys.
Prior to that outburst, no team had ever made more than a dozen triples during a single half of postseason basketball. And as Cleveland.com's Chris Haynes revealed, the Cavaliers moved past that mark with half a quarter to spare:
The Cavs got their 18 makes on just 27 attempts. Perhaps even more impressive, all but one came on an assist, helping the East's No. 1 seed showcase just how dominant its offense can look when it wholeheartedly buys into the concept of ball movement.
Kevin Love and LeBron James each made three of their four first-half attempts. Kyrie Irving went 2-of-3 from beyond the arc. Channing Frye made his only deep look. Richard Jefferson made both of his. Matthew Dellavedova severely depressed the team's percentage by going 1-of-3 from downtown. And J.R. Smith paced the juggernaut with six makes on 10 attempts.
At first, the Hawks were actually trying on defense.
And it just didn't matter.
In spite of the heavy contesting, the Cavs refused to miss. But as the lead swelled, a disheartened Atlanta defense resorted to less advised tactics. As Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted, it tried switching to a zone scheme, and Irving quickly capitalized:
Then, the Hawks basically stopped trying.
There was no hint of proper transition defense from the disheartened visitors, and their half-court closeouts lacked the fervent energy that became omnipresent during their inspired Game 1 comeback. The Nylon Calculus' Seth Partnow summed it up rather succinctly:
It should be obvious that 18 triples in a single half is special, if for no other reason than the previous record. But let this stat provide even more perspective: If the Cavs had refused to take even a single three-point attempt during the second half, they'd have the ninth-most prolific performance in playoff history from beyond the arc.
And they didn't stop firing away after halftime. When the clock hit triple zeroes for the final time, they'd knocked down a mind-numbing 25 triples, breaking both the postseason mark they'd tied in the first round (20) and a record the Golden State Warriors had set four days later (21). In fact, Irving hit their 22nd trey—his fourth of the night—with 5:05 remaining in the third quarter.
When Dahntay Jones splashed home Cleveland's 24th triple with 2:21 left in the final period, it moved past the all-time record for most threes in any game, previously held by the 2008-09 Orlando Magic and 2012-13 Houston Rockets.
"Tonight was a special night for our organization," James told reporters after the game, per ESPN.com. "To set an all-time record in NBA history...it's truly special."
This wasn't just a victory. It wasn't just a blowout that featured a closer final margin than the two teams deserved.
It was a statement heard loud and clear, directed at both the Hawks and the rest of the teams still alive in the chase for the Larry O'Brien Trophy—this Cavaliers squad is capable of turning into an unstoppable force on the offensive end, and it isn't messing around.
The Cavs don't just want to leave Quicken Loans Arena with a 2-0 lead. They want to thoroughly embarrass the Hawks, to the point their confidence is entirely shaken, verging on nonexistent by the time they're playing in front of their hometown fans. The Cavs don't just want to beat the Hawks in this second-round series. They want to sweep them.
Even more importantly, the Cavs don't just want to play the Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder or Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA Finals. They want to get there by steamrolling through the Eastern Conference "competition," dominating to such an extent the Western representative has nightmares about the beatdowns its opponent has already inflicted.
Once more, with feeling: Message received.
Atlanta head coach Mike Budenholzer has a difficult task at hand while trying to convince his troops not to roll over and play dead for the next two games. But at least the substance of his message is obvious.
This was only Game 2 of a best-of-seven series, and anything can happen if the Hawks manage to earn back-to-back victories at home. Maybe some key member of the Cleveland roster gets injured. Maybe the Cavs go inexplicably cold or get overconfident after this Tuesday trouncing.
Plus, Atlanta has a stellar defense to rely on, even if you wouldn't know it after this embarrassing performance. The Hawks did post the league's No. 2 defensive rating during the regular season and entered Game 2 with a postseason defensive rating that trailed only the Warriors and Spurs.
It's these undeniable facts that need to ring out loud and clear in the Atlanta locker room, especially after the Hawks emerged from halftime and allowed 32 third-quarter points. Cleveland didn't let up until the fourth quarter—which featured exactly zero minutes from the starters—and it doesn't appear it will until its season is over.
Beating the Detroit Pistons in the first round was a foregone conclusion, even if some of the games were tight. Working past the Hawks could probably fall into the same category—seriously, 18 members of ESPN's panel unanimously picked Cleveland to move on to the penultimate round.
But the Cavaliers are no longer content to survive and advance. Their real championship push began Wednesday night, setting the tone for what's to come.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09.