On a night that centered around the great Dominique Wilkins, there was a fantastic atmosphere at Philips Arena. On the court, the Atlanta Hawks took care of business with a 106-97 victory over LeBron James and the Cavaliers for their sixth straight win.
After the typical "feeling out" process in the early moments, the Hawks exploded. Atlanta rushed to a 15-1 spurt that included an Al Horford corner three (!) and a beautiful Kent Bazemore reverse alley-oop layup, and when the onslaught ceased, the home team was leading 26-11 in a hurry.
The Hawks continued to impress throughout the first quarter, scoring a season-high 36 points in the opening frame. For reference, Atlanta made 71% of their shots against just 40% for the visiting Cavs, and for good measure, Cleveland committed six turnovers.
Naturally, Cleveland bounced back a bit in the second quarter, knocking down three of their first four attempts from beyond the arc to quell Atlanta's charge. The lead hovered in the double-digit range, but for a brief moment after a 6-0 run by the Hawks, it looked like things could get out of hand. On cue, though, Cleveland scored the final five points in the half (with some "crafty" officiating from Tony Brothers and crew), and the advantage was just 10 at the break with the score sitting at 53-43.
The blazing hot shooting of the early going slowed a bit, but the good guys still posted a 54.8% clip from the field in the first 24 minutes. In fairness, Atlanta could have mounted a larger lead if not for a 2-for-9 showing from three-point distance, but the defense was largely solid, to the point where LeBron James scored only 5 points on 1-for-7 shooting. Al Horford was the story of the half as well, scoring 13 points, grabbing 6 rebounds and dishing out 4 assists to set a fiery pace.
Somewhat predictably, the visiting Cavs were up for a run in the third quarter. Cleveland sprang to a 9-0 run to slash the lead to 63-61, and the spurt featured a J.R. Smith three that sent Mike Budenholzer screaming for a timeout. The Hawks quickly rallied to play virtually even basketball the rest of the way, but Cleveland did manage to take the lead on Timofey Mozgov free throws with 6:15 left in the quarter, and things got chippy and physical while the officiating ground things to a virtual halt.
With the help of energy and defense from the one and only Elton Brand (!), the Hawks got things going to begin the fourth. Brand provided a lift on both ends, but it was also Kyle Korver who acted as the impetus of a 10-2 run, banging home his first two field goals of the night from beyond the three-point line. Atlanta would eventually lift their advantage to 15 with the run stretching to 17-4, and the mojo was back.
Mike Scott did his personal best to keep the Hawks comfortably in front, scoring 10 points in the first 9 minutes of the fourth quarter. He certainly had help (notably from Paul Millsap), but Scott's play was key in keeping the Cavaliers at arm's length, and Atlanta maintained a 10-point lead as Budenholzer called for timeout with 3:16 remaining.
From there, it was gravy. Cleveland simply couldn't connect on the requisite attempts from long range to make the game close, and the Hawks did enough on both ends to never feel real pressure. When the final buzzer sounded, it was a solid victory for the home team, and the Atlanta Hawks took the season series with the Cavs by a 3-1 margin.
This was the epitome of a team victory for the Hawks, and while that must sound familiar, it was especially true here. Seven players tallied double-figures for Atlanta, and as a group, Mike Budenholzer's team shot 51% from the field while holding the best player on earth to just 18 points on 5 for 13 shooting.
In the grand scheme, this is a win in March, but from a perception standpoint, the Atlanta Hawks may have made a statement on Friday evening.