James scores 34 points as Cavs ground Hawks

Alone under his basket, LeBron James braced himself for Atlanta’s onslaught.

Cleveland Cavaliers’ Delonte West (13) drives on Atlanta Hawks’ Mike Bibby in the first quarter of an NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinal game Tuesday

Cleveland 99 Atlanta 72

CLEVELAND — Alone under his basket, LeBron James braced himself for Atlanta’s onslaught.

As two Hawks swooped down on a fast break, James held his ground, stepped in front of Joe Johnson and took the charge. It was a smart play that showed why James is the NBA’s most valuable player.

James dunked the first time he touched the ball and scored 34 points — 22 in the first half — as the Cavaliers, who waited nine days between playoff games after a first-round sweep, shook off some early rust and pulled away for a 99-72 win over the Hawks in their Eastern Conference semifinal opener on Tuesday.

Showing why he was voted MVP in a landslide, James added 10 rebounds, three assists and four steals as the top-seeded Cavs won their fifth straight lopsided game in a post-season that has so far mirrored the best regular season in franchise history.

James stuffed the stat sheet again, but it was his defensive stop on Johnson in the third quarter that meant as much as anything.

“An MVP taking a charge on the break?” Cavs guard Mo Williams said.

“That’s amazing. You get that effort from him, how could I not take a charge? The whole night was about him and he came out and showed why he is the MVP — in the first quarter.”

The Cavs weren’t sure how the layoff would affect them.

“It was unbelievable how sharp we were,” James said. “We just picked up where we left off.”

Williams added 21 points for Cleveland, which became the first team since the 2004 Detroit Pistons to win each of its five playoff games by double figures.

With the Cavs up by 21, James was pulled with 4:29 left — extra down time before Game 2 on Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavaliers are 42-2.

Josh Smith scored 22 and Mike Bibby 19 for the Hawks, who needed seven games to get past Miami and are playing in the second round for the first time in 10 years. They weren’t happy with their start in this series, going 9-for-30 and scoring just 28 points after halftime.

“It was very disappointing,” Smith said. “We advanced to the next level in the post-season and it’s kind of disheartening not to be able to play and bring the effort in the second half.”

Nuggets 117 Maericks 105

DENVER — The Dallas Mavericks toughened up and clamped down Tuesday night, and it still wasn’t enough to beat the high-flying Denver Nuggets.

Carmelo Anthony led another fourth-quarter blitz by the Nuggets, who overcame Dirk Nowitzki’s 35 points and more hustle and muscle from the Mavericks for a 117-105 victory.

The Nuggets are up 2-0 in their best-of-seven series.

Anthony scored 15 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter, Nene scored 25, J.R. Smith had 21 and Chauncey Billups 18 for the Nuggets, who won for the 15th straight time at the Pepsi Center, where they haven’t lost since March 11.

The series shifts to Dallas for Game 3 Saturday night, and the Mavericks can only hope they’re going to be as good on their home court as the Nuggets were on theirs.

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