Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue celebrated his 39th birthday on Tuesday and proudly showed off a few gray hairs — silvery-speckled souvenirs of job-related stress.
“I dyed mine gray,” Lue joked. “My Barack Obama look.”
Well, Lue may soon be grayer than the president if King James doesn’t get to the free-throw line more often.
LeBron James attempted just one foul shot — completing a 3-point play with 2:09 left — in Cleveland’s Game 1 win over the Atlanta Hawks, who overcame an 18-point deficit before fading in the final four minutes and losing by 11.
Over the course of his 13-year career, James has played in 183 playoff games, and this was just the first time he attempted only one free throw. Twice he took zero.
Lue wasn’t about to risk a fine from the NBA for complaining about the officials heading into Game 2 on Wednesday, but he thought James deserved more whistles than were heard.
“When he attacks the basket, he’s so strong and athletic and he goes with so much force that a lot of times, guys are bouncing off of him, but still, those are fouls,” said Lue, who improved to 5-0 in his first postseason in charge. “We just got to continue to play through it and got to continue to keep attacking and, hopefully, we’ll get those calls.”
On one late sequence, James got whacked in the face as he drove to the basket by Atlanta’s Paul Millsap and crashed to the floor. Sprawled next to a few photographers on the baseline, James held his head as play continued without him. The Hawks then enjoyed a 5-on-4 advantage for several seconds before James lumbered up the floor still smarting from Millsap’s blow.
James gets his share of favorable calls, no doubt. But to this point in these playoffs, the four-time MVP has only tried 16 free throws in five games.
That’s hardly preferential treatment for a superstar.
Atlanta did all it could to slow him down, and James still posted 25 points, nine assists, seven rebounds and five steals in 40 minutes as the Cavs improved to 9-0 against the Hawks in the postseason. The Hawks may need a new strategy to prevent the Cavs from taking a 2-0 lead.
While they did a serviceable job on James, the Hawks were unable to stop Kyrie Irving (21 points) down the stretch, they scored one field goal in the final 4:29 and they couldn’t handle Tristan Thompson, who snared 14 rebounds, including a vital one on the offensive end that led to James’ game-sealing 3-point play.
Thompson’s uncanny ability to come up with rebounds has been an issue since last year’s Eastern Conference finals when he averaged 11 rebounds during Cleveland’s four-game sweep, outplaying Millsap and Al Horford, a pair of All-Stars.
Atlanta’s dilemma — and this is true for any Cleveland opponent — is that when a second player commits to guarding James, it makes it easier for Thompson to rebound.
“If you help, then he’s active on the boards,” Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I know it’s more important that we make them miss first. That’s our priority and then we have to have all five guys in there getting after it. Credit to him. He’s a good player. He plays off their penetration and shots well. If we continue to make the first shot difficult and then all five guys participate, that gives us our best chance.”
The Hawks won’t have any chance if Kyle Korver doesn’t get going.
Atlanta’s sharpshooter attempted just one shot — and missed a 3-pointer — in nearly 37 minutes as he was unable to shake free from Cavs guards J.R. Smith, who hounded him all over the court. But while Cleveland’s strategy on Korver worked, Hawks guard Dennis Schroder made the Cavs pay by dropping five 3-pointers and scoring 27 points.
Lue made a late adjustment, going over screens instead of under them, to make it tougher on Schroder.
Cleveland’s only concern coming out of Game 1 was the health of Kevin Love, who banged his right shoulder when he got Hawks guard Kent Bazemore off his feet with a pump fake and drew a hard foul while trying a 3-pointer.
Love, who scored 17 points on just 4 of 17 shooting in Game 1, was not spotted at the team’s facility when the media was allowed in following practice, but Lue said the forward was “fine.”
“No problems,” Lue said.
And maybe one less gray hair.