ATLANTA (AP) – If this were a heavyweight fight, the referee might have already stepped in to stop it.

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are on a record roll and throwing nothing but haymakers. The Atlanta Hawks are all banged up and on the ropes.

Of course, it takes four wins to advance in the NBA playoffs, so the Cavaliers’ work is only half done. But it’s hard to see any way the team with the league’s MVP and best record of anyone during the regular season could possibly let this one slip away, not after those first two games in Cleveland.

The Cavs took Game 1 by 27 points. Game 2 was a 20-point blowout (and not really that close).

Compounding Atlanta’s problems: Three starters – leading scorer Joe Johnson, center Al Horford and forward Marvin Williams – are hurting. Horford (sprained ankle) and Williams (sprained wrist) sat out Game 2, while Johnson twisted his right ankle after the contest already had gotten out of hand and left the arena in a walking boot.

They’re all questionable for Game 3 Saturday night. Even if they play, none will be at full strength.

“It’s a little frustrating not to have a full deck,” Hawks coach Mike Woodson said after practice Friday. “No one wants to go through a playoff series all beat up. We’ve got some key guys on the sideline.”

Horford and Williams took part in the off-day practice at Philips Arena, though it really was more of a walkthrough. Johnson stayed in the back, getting treatment.

“Injuries happen. They’re part of the game,” said Zaza Pachulia, who would start at center if Horford can’t go. “Unfortunately, it’s happened to us in the playoffs. That’s not a good time. But we’re still going to have five guys on the court.”

Don’t expect any sympathy from the Cavaliers, who have won all six of their playoff games by double figures – matching the record streak set by the 2004 Indiana Pacers – and also became just the second team to win three straight postseason games by at least 20 points. The 1986 Los Angeles Lakers, led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, were the first.

“I’ve seen a lot of teams come up with some big-time efforts when starters are out,” Wally Szczerbiak said. “Look at the playoffs this year. Dwight Howard was out and the Magic won Game 6 on the road in Philly to close out that series. So we’ve got to be ready for their guys to step up. There are professional basketball players in this league who are hungry and ready to play. We have to go out and do our jobs and continue to play the way we have, no matter who is out there for them.”

The Hawks can look back to last year’s playoffs in their search for inspiration.

Atlanta was blown out in its first two games of its opening-round series against Boston, and just about everyone predicted the eventual champion Celtics would win in a sweep.

Instead, the Hawks won all three on their home court, forcing an improbable seventh game in Boston. OK, so they were routed in the decisive contest, but Atlanta would surely take a winner-take-all game in Cleveland if it was offered.

“It’s a tough task, but anything is possible,” Atlanta forward Josh Smith said. “If we step up, we can make a series out of this.”

Pachulia was more realistic when someone brought up the Celtics-Hawks series.

“It kind of reminds me of last year,” he said. “But this is different, because we didn’t have all the injuries last year. Three guys are injured. That’s kind of tough, especially when they are guys who started all year.”

Woodson spent the day focusing on defense. The Cavaliers shot 50 percent from the field and averaged 102 points in the first two games, led by James at 30.5.

“They have a great player and a great supporting cast, but we’re not playing defense nowhere near as good as we did during the season and during the Miami series,” the Atlanta coach said, referring to the opening round. “There were too many gaps, too many holes. We tried to simplify things today. We have been good at protecting the paint. That’s something they’re doing right now, but we’re not. We gave up something like 20 layups in Game 2. And 102 points a game? That’s not going to cut it.”

The Cavaliers’ main concern is Delonte West, who got poked in the right eye in Game 2. He didn’t practice before the team left for Atlanta, but coach Mike Brown expects him to start Saturday.

There was a lingering buzz in Cleveland about James’ step-back, 36-foot jumper at the halftime horn to give the Cavaliers a 24-point lead.

“I still don’t know how you can shoot a jump shot from that far out,” Brown said. “That’s amazing to me. And not only a jump shot, but a step-back jump shot, which is even harder.

“My son plays NBA Live,” the coach added, “and that’s the only time I’ve seen that happen.”

AP-ES-05-08-09 2010EDT

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