CLEVELAND: The third-best team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference simply didn’t look the part Wednesday night against the pesky Cavaliers.
The Atlanta Hawks entered Quicken Loans Arena with an impressive record, but left disappointed as the Cavs earned a 99-83 victory with a roster decimated by injuries.
Cavs coach Byron Scott used 10 players, and none was better than Kyrie Irving, who scored 33 points and had four assists before a crowd of 13,149.
“I thought he was aggressive,” Scott said. “I didn’t he think was out of control and I didn’t think he took any bad shots. I thought he really let the offense kind of come to him.
“Tonight he was able to get where he wanted to on the floor under control and make shots. I thought he was shooting the 3 well, his in-between game was good and he was able to get to the basket. He had all facets going, which is good. I just like the fact that he didn’t look like he was ever out of control. He stayed in the moment.”
Irving logged 34 minutes and was brilliant for most of it, converting 11-of-15 shots from the field, including 5-of-6 from 3-point range, and 6-of-6 on free throws to give the Cavs their first home win since Dec. 11 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I’ve been figuring that out over the last few weeks, becoming that verbal leader we need on both ends of the floor,” Irving said. “Being complete. That’s what I need to be and that’s what Coach wants out of me. [I’m] just trying to do that every single day.”
Irving scored 18 points in the third quarter to give the Cavs the separation they needed to win with a lineup minus Anderson Varejao (knee injury), C.J. Miles (back strain), Luke Walton (personal matters) and Daniel Gibson (concussion).
“We have to all to step up for Andy, we were all aware of that,” Irving said. “Obviously, he’s going to be extremely missed. It’s an opportunity for different guys on the team.
“We have to move forward. Andy’s production, his effort, his morale around the team, is going to be truly missed. It’s an opportunity for other guys to step up.”
Alonzo Gee made 5-of-9 3-pointers for 15 points and had six rebounds.
“I just wanted the guys to go out and have fun, play hard and see what happens,” Scott said. “Play hard, play together and play smart. If we do those three things, we give ourselves an opportunity to win. I thought, obviously, we did all three of those things.”
Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller had double-doubles. Thompson had 11 points and 14 rebounds, and Zeller added 11 points and 12 rebounds.
“I don’t know if you necessarily need that type of performance from both those guys every single night, but somewhere near there would be nice,” Scott said. “The message for Tristan was to play with a lot of energy, be aggressive, rebound on both ends of the floor and defend.”
Josh Smith paced the Hawks with 17 points and eight rebounds. Jeff Teague (15 points, eight assists), Al Horford (14 points) and Kyle Korver (12 points) also had double figures.
The Cavs started the game shooting well and held a 29-28 lead after the first quarter. Gee scored 12 points in the opening 12 minutes and Irving added 11 points as the Cavs made 11-of-23 from field and 7-of-10 from beyond 3-point arc.
The Cavs held a 49-40 halftime advantage.
The Hawks opened the third quarter on an 11-2 run and tied the score at 51-51 with 9:11 to go, but the Cavs countered with an 11-2 run and led 62-53 moments later.
Irving extended the lead to 77-63 following three quarters with a barrage of scoring from the free-throw line, beyond the 3-point arc and with drives to the basket.
The Cavs led 88-74 with 6:47 to go following an Omri Casspi 3-pointer, a Shaun Livingston two-hand dunk and a Jeremy Pargo reverse layup.
Dion Waiters returned to the starting lineup and had nine points and four assists.
Scott said Gibson was “cleared” to play, but he “didn’t feel ready to play five-on-five” and Miles “just wasn’t ready” to play.
Scott said he pulled Irving aside for a chat with about five minutes remaining in the game and said “Great players have to take over, play smart and get a good shot every time.”
Irving agreed with his coach and then did just that.
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert called the split quadriceps injury to Varejao “a killer for us” and called the Cavs’ record “embarrassing” during Wednesday’s telecast. Gilbert joined the broadcast team for the second quarter and covered a variety of topics.
“Had he come back with that injury and re-injured it, it would’ve been a career-ending type of injury,” Gilbert said.
He isn’t happy with the record, but told fans disgruntled with the Cavs’ record that the organization will “tough it out and continue down the path until we deliver championships.”
“This year has not been an easy year,” he said. “This will improve. There are better days ahead. We will get through it.”
Michael Beaven can be reached at 330-996-3829 or email@example.com. Read the high school blog at http://www.ohio.com/preps. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MBeavenABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.