The Cavaliers have eliminated the Atlanta Hawks in each of the last two postseasons. Can the Hawks change that this year?
With their 126-125 overtime win against the Cavaliers, the Atlanta Hawks won the season series against the Cleveland 3-1. The win gave Atlanta two wins during the teams’ home-and-home on Friday and Sunday, the latter coming inside Philips Arena.
The Hawks handed the Cavs their first loss of the season in early November, but fell to them in March. All four matchups were decided by five points or fewer.
No win over the previous first-place Cavaliers was more surprising than the April 7th victory, when none of Atlanta’s five starters played. Tim Hardaway Jr. paced the Hawks’ bench-only squad with a team-high 22 points, 15 of which came in the fourth quarter.
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The Hawks’ bench has been middle-of-the-pack this season, but single-handedly defeating the reigning Eastern Conference champions could give the unit loads of confidence moving into the playoffs.
The playoff picture is not clear yet, but if the Hawks hold onto the fifth seed they will face Washington in the first round. If not, their first opponent could be either Boston or Cleveland.
Atlanta faces Cleveland in the first round, only if both Atlanta falls to the seventh seed and Cleveland remains at the second seed.
Whether it’s the LeBron James with little supporting cast Cavaliers or the Big 3 Cavaliers, James is all that matters after the ball is tipped.
A statistic that could spell trouble for the Hawks if they meet Cleveland again is the leading scorer stat. In all four games between the two, the leading scorer was either Kyrie Irving (3) or LeBron James (1).
Unfortunately, the playoffs are where superstars win the games, but it hasn’t showed in the win column during the regular season meetings. Kevin Love missed Cleveland’s lone win against the Hawks, but notched double-doubles in the three losses.
It’s hard to tell an Atlanta fan not to have optimism should the Hawks and Cavs meet in the playoffs, considering how the season series played out.
Defeating Cleveland three times despite monster games from Irving and James has the chance to give the Hawks some of the best momentum in the league moving forward.
Cleveland’s roster was intentionally built for its stars to carry them, but the contributions from other players have been abysmal. Only once in the four matchups against the Hawks did someone not named James, Irving, or Love score more than 15 points.
Hardaway Jr. scored more than 20 points in every matchup except the first, where Kent Bazemore scored 25 points on 8/13 shooting. This is the type of assistance Paul Millsap and Dennis Schroder need in the scoring department for the Hawks to win playoff games.
The Hawks three-point shot was missing for a large part of the season, but it seems they have found the stroke on their three-game winning streak. Atlanta made 11 threes against Boston, and 16 and nine in their games versus Cleveland.
The three ball wasn’t a problem for the Hawks in recent years, but their absence of closer has plagued Atlanta.
What has kept people from grouping the Hawks with the elite NBA teams for many of the past years is their lack of a player who can close a game out. But this year, four-time consecutive All-Star Paul Millsap has shown he can go get the Hawks a basket down the stretch.
Millsap grabbed the loose ball after a late jump-ball against Cleveland and proceeded to beat the buzzer with a mid-range fadeaway.
Against Portland, Millsap forced overtime again with a left-handed floater off an inbound pass.
The way things have gone against Cleveland, and their recent winning streak, are some of Atlanta’s brightest spots of the season. If there’s a year that the Hawks can give LeBron James and the Cavs a taste of the beating that they routinely hand out, it’s this year.
Yes, the year when the Hawks have clearly played their worst offensive basketball of the last few seasons is the year they might finally be able to unseat King James.