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Hawks face even tougher challenge with this year’s Cavaliers

In this Oct. 28, 2015, file photo, Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James calls to players while moving the ball downcourt in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies, in Memphis, Tenn. The Cavaliers' Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Atlanta Hawks begins Monday, May 2, 2016.

Brandon Dill/AP

LeBron James plucked the Atlanta Hawks clean and stuffed them for mounting by himself in last year's playoffs.

He's got more help now.

With Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving healthy and well-rested following a first-round sweep of Detroit, James and the Cleveland Cavaliers enter their series against the Hawks as overwhelming favourites to return to the Eastern Conference finals. The Cavs swept the Hawks a year ago on their way to the NBA finals and have won seven in a row over Atlanta.

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James, though, said the recent domination means nothing once Game 1 tips off Monday.

"It don't matter if you can win 100 straight games against somebody," James said. "If you lose four in a row, then you're out of the playoffs."

That's what happened to the Hawks last year, when James overwhelmed them in the conference finals. He nearly averaged a triple-double, posting 30.3 points,11 rebounds and 9.3 assists in the four games, the highest statistical line in postseason history.

The four-time MVP was forced to do much of it on his own after the Cavs lost Love to a shoulder injury in the first round and Irving was playing on a gimpy knee that eventually gave out in the Finals, when he shattered his kneecap in Game 1.

Atlanta's chances this time hinge on figuring a way to slow down James and take their chances with the rest of the Cavs.

"You start at the top, you put pressure on the leader, put pressure on their best player, which is LeBron James," Hawks forward Paul Millsap said. "I think we go for the head of the snake now, which is LeBron, make it tough on him, get out to the shooters when possible, just make it tough on them all around."

The Hawks believe their experience last season against James, along with the confidence gained in their first-round win over Boston, will serve them this time.

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"Winning Game 6 in Boston is a huge step for not only myself, but this team," guard Kent Bazemore said. "I don't think a lot of people thought we were going to go up there and close it, the way they had been playing us all series. It's just a step for us in the right direction."

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