With exactly eight games remaining in the 2013-2014 regular season, every game is critical and the Atlanta Hawks will take the floor on Friday night under the guise of that provision, as they face off with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Hawks enter the night tied with the New York Knicks for the 8th spot in the standings, placing the emphasis on a night-to-night battle with Mike Woodson's club, but the Cavs come into Atlanta with only a 2-game deficit in the standings, and they will be highly motivated as well.
The season series currently stands at 2-0 in favor of the Hawks, but both games were hotly contested and each took place before the calendar changed to 2014, meaning that it would be difficult to take them at face value in early April. Cleveland enters on the back of two straight wins, and although they have been a severe disappointment in the eyes of many, the Cavs are playing with urgency, and with their talent level as currently constructed, it isn't an easy match-up.
Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving returned after an 8-game injury in Cleveland's win on Wednesday night, and he is at the center of everything that they do. The Hawks, and namely Jeff Teague, have had big time difficulty with perimeter defense (as evidenced by the 40 combined points from DJ Augustin and Kirk Hinrich on Wednesday), and Irving will present a unique challenge, especially when paired with the offensively explosive Dion Waiters in the backcourt.
Up front, Cleveland is also quite talented, and even without mainstay Anderson Varejao (out with injury), the Cavs deploy three legitimate offensive options in Spencer Hawes, Tristan Thompson and Luol Deng. Hawes and Deng were acquired mid-season and needed some time to get acclimated, but with the way Pero Antic has played recently (not well, mind you), the size and skill combination of Hawes could present issues while Deng is always a threat.
On the bright side, there are no pressing injury concerns (that we know about) for the Hawks, and with the exception of the guys who are out for the year (Horford, Ayon, Jenkins), it should be a full compliment. It should certainly be noted that the Hawks aren't exactly playing well even with everyone back right now, but on a grand scale, Atlanta has always been extremely competitive with this active group, and I would expect that to continue here.
There is a lot on the line in this one (and every game down the stretch), but with increasingly difficult challenges on the horizon (including Indiana on Sunday), this is a highly important spot for the Hawks to grab a victory.
Game Date/Time: Friday, April 4, 7:30 p.m.
Location: Philips Arena, Atlanta, Georgia
Radio: 92.9 "The Game" FM