Recent history between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers has not been kind to Atlanta. In both 2015 and 2016, the Cavaliers swept the Hawks in the Eastern Conference playoffs, ousting any hopes of postseason glory. The most recent slap from Cleveland came they stripped Atlanta of guard Kyle Korver in a trade this past January.
“I think at points we’ve rubbed them wrong,” Cleveland guard Iman Shumpert said before the game. “No matter what you make of their team, they are always a bunch of guys that are going to come out there and compete, so we are gonna have our hands full.”
To say the Cavaliers rubbed the Hawks wrong at times may be the biggest understatement of 2017. Over the past few years, the Hawks fielded some of the best teams in franchise history. Yet time and time again, the Cavaliers crushed any hopes of postseason glory.
“When you play a team in the playoffs, you see them every other day for two weeks,” Hawks forward Kent Bazemore said prior to the matchup. “You get tired of them. There is mutual respect between both teams, but it’s always a war.”
When both teams prepared to take the floor at Philip’s Arena in Friday night’s nationally televised matchup, it was safe to assume something special was about to happen.
Rivalry aside, Friday night was a special evening for the Hawks. Dressed in their blue and green throwback jerseys, Atlanta honored the contributions of former player and NBA legend Pete Maravich by holding a ceremony at halftime, featuring speeches from Hawks legends Dikembe Mutombo and Dominique Wilkins. The atmosphere was electric as the banner dropped and Maravich’s No. 44 jersey was officially retired.
Despite the evening’s festivities, the Cavaliers were more than willing to spoil the party. With 13 points in the first quarter alone, Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving led an explosive offense to 39 points and a six-point lead.
In a night full of special moments, another came when Korver entered the game with 3:17 to play in the first quarter, this time in a Cavaliers jersey. His first game back in Atlanta since the Jan. 8 trade, Korver was welcomed back to Philips Arena with a strong chorus of cheers. At the quarter break, the Hawks paid tribute to their former all-star with a montage of Korver’s most memorable moments in Atlanta.
“There were a lot of emotions during the game,” Korver said. “It was good to be back home.”
Cleveland would continue to dominate in the second, piling on another 38 points for a 77-60 lead at halftime. With strong three-point shooters at nearly every position, the Cleveland brutalized the Hawks from behind the arc. Often switching Hawks center Dwight Howard onto Cavaliers’ forwards Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye, Cleveland’s smaller, quicker lineup made it easy to find open looks from three.
The start of the third quarter saw more of the same as Cleveland continued to lay it on, stretching their lead to 25 points. In one sequence, Cleveland forward LeBron James hit two consecutive three-pointers, including a fadeaway off one foot from the corner that made it seem as though anything and everything that the Cavaliers put up was going to fall in.
Even if the crowd had given up, Atlanta’s players did not. With 36 points on 65 percent shooting, guard Tim Hardaway Jr. offered the Hawks a lift they desperately needed, helping his team make some deep cuts into a seemingly insurmountable lead.
“All the pressure is off when you are down that much,” Hardaway, Jr. said. “My teammates did a great job of finding me. I forced a couple here and there and they got on me about it, but kept telling me to be aggressive.”
With the two teams neck and neck, 124-123 Cleveland, it was Korver who put the nail in the coffin, draining a three with a little over a minute remaining to put Cleveland ahead for good.
“Kyle being Kyle, he knocked it down when the game mattered most and that’s why he is one of the best,” Hardaway, Jr. said.
Making an NBA record 25 three-pointers in a single game, the Cavaliers were simply too good. Irving led the way with 43 points for the Cavaliers, while James added on 38 of his own to help the his team to a 135-130 victory Friday.
“To some degree, it feels like you are trading twos for threes,” Atlanta Head Coach Mike Budenholzer said. “You come in trying to take away the three-point line, but it’s a lot harder the way that James and Irving create and draw attention.”
Despite the loss, the Hawks remain No. 5 in the East, while the No. 1 Cavaliers stretch their lead in the East over the No. 2 Boston Celtics.