No man is an island — especially trying to guard LeBron James.
The Hawks will once again try to employ a strategy of guarding the Cavaliers’ all-world forward with multiple players, schemes and strategies.
The game plan hasn’t been successful recently. The Cavaliers won all four games in the Eastern Conference finals last season and all three regular-season games this season. But really, what is the alternative?
The Hawks started watching film Saturday to adjust their plan of defense before Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series Monday in Cleveland.
“There are some things that we need to be better at,” Al Horford said. “There is no question that our one-on-one defense has to be better, and our team defense, we have to make sure we have our guys’ backs. When you talk about LeBron, you don’t talk about one player guarding him and leaving him on an island. He’s in the kind of player that demands a whole team pays attention to you. All of us has to be really active and make sure that he works for everything he gets.”
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In three regular-season games against the Hawks, James averaged 27.3 points and 11.0 rebounds. That included a near triple-double of 29 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists in an overtime win in Atlanta on April 1 and a 34-point game while playing just three quarters April 11 in Cleveland.
Those recent memories sting.
With the recent failures, the Hawks believe there are areas for improvement.
“A lot of it is just being better,” Kyle Korver said. “You can’t give him angles. You can’t give him easy baskets. You can’t give him momentum plays. He’s just too good. He’s too big and strong. You can’t give him an angle. You can’t shade him one way. You can’t force him one way. You’ve got to square your shoulders to his shoulders and try to make it tough on him. Even if you do that, he’s still probably going to get 30 points
While the Hawks will take a team-approach to guarding James, Kent Bazemore will get the first chance. The forward has some experience after getting starts in Games 3 and 4 of last year’s series after Korver suffered a season-ending ankle injury. He started on James this season as well.
“That’s LeBron James. I’m Kent Bazemore,” Bazemore said. “It’s a huge opportunity. but I can’t really focus on a mano y mano matchup. I’m a team player. This is a team-oriented organization. We are not going to put a label on this guy versus that guy. We are going to go out and try to outwork them and outhustle them. …
“You can’t go in humble. You have to make yourself angry. You have to do whatever it takes to accept that challenge because he’s a freight train. He brings it. He comes with everything he has. You have to do the same to hang in there. I love to compete.”
In the first round, the Hawks made it a priority to stop the Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas as they trapped the point guard, packed the paint and dared his teammates to shoot from the outside. To some degree, the Hawks tried that strategy against James last postseason, a 4-0 Cavaliers series sweep. As Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer noted, James is a willing and able passer. As Bazemore noted, the Cavaliers are a “night and day” better outside shooting team than the Celtics.
James averaged 30.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 9.2 assists against the Hawks in last season’s playoff series. In Game 3, James had 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists.
“That’s what we tried to do in the series last year, and he just found every shooter,” Korver said of focusing on James. “They 3-pointed us to death. It’s a totally different scenario. He and Kyrie (Irving) are both going to have the ball in their hands a lot. They are both great in one-one-one situations. They are both great in pick-and-roll. We have to give them the proper respect that they deserve, but they have a ton of great shooting. … There are a lot of other things we need to worry about. Definitely we need to do a great job on the ball, but we can’t just sag everyone in the middle. I think we learned our lesson last year doing that.”