CLEVELAND --- Josh Smith's first-quarter tackle of game official Bill Kennedy might have been the Hawks' best chance of slowing down the Cleveland Cavaliers. Because there wasn't much the Hawks could do to slow LeBron James and his crew Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
The Cavaliers brushed off a nine-day rest between series to pound the Hawks 99-72 in Game 1 of this Eastern Conference semifinal.
James put a stamp on his own coronation ceremony --- NBA Commissioner David Stern presented him with his first MVP trophy before the game --- by working the Hawks for 34 points, 10 rebounds and three assists.
James kept the Hawks on the end of his jab all night, working them inside and out from start to finish. He had 22 points on 7-for-12 shooting from the floor by halftime, much to the delight of the sellout crowd of 20,562 that turned out to see their team after the long layoff.
Cavaliers coach Mike Brown lauded his superstar for his effort more than anything, pointing to the way the 6-foot-8, 260-pound James hit the floor for a loose ball early to make clear that his team was coming to work with hard hats on.
"LeBron, during the course of the game, he got on the ground I don't know how many times," Brown said. "He came up with a 50-50 ball that set the tone. In the playoffs everybody knows what offensive plays you're going to run. When you have him diving on the floor, getting after those 50-50 balls, it sets the tone."
While other teams, namely the Los Angeles Lakers, have struggled in their first game after a long break during the playoffs, the Cavaliers had no such trouble.
James certainly didn't. He kept the Cavaliers in control while Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mo Williams and Delonte West worked the bugs out of their games.
James left the game with four and half minutes to play, still being serenaded with chants of "MVP" from the crowd after another night of dominating the competition.
The Hawks kept the game tight in the first half, trailing 49-44 at the break behind the early work of Smith (17 points) and Mike Bibby (14 points).
Hawks All-Star Joe Johnson wasn't much of a factor before the break. He took just four shots, making two, all in the first quarter.
And the Cavaliers weren't covering him with two and three defenders on every possession, as was the case in the Hawks' first-round series against Miami.
In fact, they were guarding Johnson with smaller defenders, Williams and West mostly, and trapping him infrequently.
Johnson finished with only 11 points on 5-for-10 shooting, and he was nearly as aggressive as the Hawks will need him to be if they're going to make this any kind of series. He did have six assists, but he also had five turnovers.
Smith led the Hawks with 22 points, on 8-for-15 shooting, and six rebounds. Bibby finished with 19 and eight assists.
The Hawks' offense never got going, stalling for a few minutes early and then again midway through the third quarter. The Hawks shot only 9-for-30 from the floor in the second half, punctuating their miserable offensive performance on a night when they could ill-afford to fall behind the Cavaliers.
Even more alarming late for the Hawks was the sight of center Al Horford limping on his right ankle, the same ankle he sprained in Game 5 of the Hawks' first-round series against Miami, the same ankle that cost him Game 6 of that series.
If the Hawks don't have him at something close to healthy, Thursday night's Game 2 against the Cavaliers will be in danger of getting out of hand as well.
Game 1: Cavaliers 99, Hawks 72