After four full days off, the Atlanta Hawks faced a significant challenge against the defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night. While the team was up to that challenge for the majority of 48 minutes, the final result was not a favorable one for the underdogs, as the Hawks fell to the Cavs by a final score of 121-114.
The theme of the first quarter was the optional nature of defense. The Hawks claimed a 26-23 lead after eight minutes on the strength of 64 percent shooting but, in short order, Cleveland roared back with potent offense. At the end of 12 minutes, Atlanta had ceded a 160.3 defensive rating (yikes) to the visiting Cavs and Cleveland shot 67 percent from the floor to go along with 6 of 8 from beyond the arc.
Frankly, the Hawks were lucky to emerge from that ugly defense performance with only a seven-point deficit after the first quarter but the resistance did stiffen, at least to some extent in the second quarter. In fact, Atlanta used a 23-9 opening run (and 17 first-half points from Dennis Schröder) in that period to claim the lead and, later, led by as many as nine points prior to halftime before settling in with a 67-63 advantage.
The visitors blitzed the Hawks to begin the second half, though, as Cleveland raced to eight straight points behind LeBron James’ brilliance. Atlanta did respond with back-to-back threes from Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince but, within moments, the Cavs rattled off a 12-2 run to take a double-digit lead that they would hold for the majority of the third quarter.
With a nine-point deficit (and an unsightly 137.9 defensive rating to that point) to open the fourth, things looked relatively bleak for the home team. Still, the Hawks would not fade away, battling in back-and-forth fashion throughout the closing period.
While there was a great deal of (justified) focus on John Collins leaving the game with 3:59 remaining and heading to the locker room with a reported shoulder injury, Atlanta climbed within just one point during the stretch run. Unfortunately, the Hawks were unable to get over the hump, as a mid-range jumper from Schröder went begging (one that would have given Atlanta the lead) before James knocked down a three on the other end. From there, it was purely academic on the way to the seven-point final margin.
Schröder led the way for the Hawks, scoring 27 points on 11 of 19 shooting, and he was flanked by strong performances from Ersan Ilyasova (22 points on 11 shots) and Marco Belinelli (18 points, five assists, four rebounds). Still, the defensive end doomed Atlanta throughout the evening and not even an above-average offensive showing was enough to overcome that shaky effort.
After was an encouraging performance, the Hawks will be back in action on Saturday in New York as the team takes on the Brooklyn Nets. Stay tuned.