ATLANTA: While he was cautiously optimistic with the way his team had been playing in recent weeks, Mike Brown warned Thursday his team could still get hit in the head at any moment.
That moment came Friday at the worst possible time. It was a knockout punch that likely ended the Cavs’ season.
In a game they absolutely had to win in order to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive, the Cavs instead were clobbered 117-98 by the Atlanta Hawks in a game that was never really close.
It was a disappointing showing in the most important game of the season given all that was at stake. The Cavs began the night 2 games behind the Hawks and New York Knicks for the final playoff spot in the East, but are now three games out with only five to play.
They aren’t officially eliminated yet, but at this point it seems inevitable.
“It’s not over, but we had a great opportunity,” Luol Deng said. “We’re a better team than we played and we’ve taken a huge step back tonight.”
Brown watched in disbelief as guys reverted back to the bad habits on display two months ago, when the Cavs were mired in losing streaks and dysfunction. Ball movement was stagnant and the guards settled for too many contested jumpers. Defensively the Hawks destroyed the Cavs on dribble penetration, particularly early in the game, forcing the defense to collapse and allowing multiple easy dump-offs in the paint.
As a result, the Hawks set a season high with 39 points in the first quarter, which tied for the most the Cavs have surrendered in an opening quarter this season. The Hawks shot 67 percent in the first quarter, built a 39-23 lead and the Cavs never really recovered. The Hawks extended the lead to 23, shot 59 percent for the night and the Cavs never pulled within 12.
At one point, the Hawks had 19 assists on 23 baskets. They ended the night with 35 assists on 48 baskets.
“(The Hawks) did what you’re supposed to do on a night like tonight,” Brown said. “I think offensively I haven’t seen us play like this in a month-and-a-half or two months, maybe more.”
The stagnant offense irritated more than just Brown. Without naming names, Deng ripped the Cavs’ lack of ball movement.
“We have a lot of good players, a lot of individuals who could take over games, but we have to realize that’s not our strength,” Deng said. “We’ve shown when we share the ball and play together, we’re a different team.”
Deng didn’t have to name names. It’s evident he was talking about Dion Waiters (8-for-19) and Kyrie Irving (6-for-15).
“I don’t know if it’s because it’s a big game or what, but we played like how we were playing earlier in the year,” Deng said. “Our record shows when we play like that, we don’t win much.
“Sometimes you don’t want to say stuff like this, but at the same time we have to be honest with each other and know when we’re at our best, it doesn’t have to be go out and score 30. If it’s the flow of the offense, I’m playing well and making shots, I’ll go with it. But if I recognize how the game is going, how guys are playing and how they’re playing defensively, just move the ball. Move the ball to move the ball and tonight we really didn’t do that.”
Waiters had 23 points and Irving had 13 points, but neither seemed to fully agree with Deng’s and Brown’s assessment.
“I got to every spot I wanted to out on the floor,” Waiters said. “Missed shots. That’s what happens.”
Added Irving: “There were a lot of easy shots we missed especially around the rim. You combine missed shots and not getting defensive stops, I’ve said it all year, it’s tough. Obviously it makes the game seem worse than it really is.
“We kept getting good shots, good rhythm shots. We settled a little too much at times, but that’s part of the game. We continued to play. Got it within 12 a couple times, but just couldn’t get it over the hump.”
The Cavs pulled within 71-59 on a basket from Spencer Hawes midway through the third quarter, but the Hawks scored eight of the game’s next 10 points to push the lead back to 79-61 in a little more than two minutes.
Reserve forward Mike Scott had 26 points for the Hawks on a remarkable 12-for-13 shooting. Scott was the beneficiary of multiple dump-offs from the Hawks guards, and as a result fell just shy of his career high of 30 points. Jeff Teague had 20 points and 12 assists, Paul Millsap had 16 points and 11 rebounds and Lou Williams had 16 points off the bench for the Hawks, who swept the season series from the Cavs.
They return home to host the Charlotte Bobcats on Saturday, but the next most important date on their calendar is really May 20 – the night of the draft lottery.