The Atlanta Hawks capped off a magical week and a very special night with a 106-97 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Hawks donned throwback uniforms as part of the celebration for team legend Dominique Wilkins and fed off the energy in the arena as they jumped out to a big early lead.
"The way our group started tonight, the focus and the activity defensively, and then the way we were able to finish the fourth quarter with the same defensive effort and defensive focus and defensive activity - that's what were looking for," head coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters following the game.
"Obviously, you want to do it for more of the 48 minutes than your opponent. I know that first and fourth quarter is how we want to be defensively. It's a good win. It's a great night for Dominique and all the fans and the organization. It was a good atmosphere in the arena. I'm glad we could finish it in a positive way."
Atlanta jumped out to a 36-19 lead at the end of the first quarter. The Hawks were red hot offensively shooting 71 percent from the field. Their defense was locked in holding the Cavaliers to just 19 points on 40 percent shooting while forcing six turnovers.
Cleveland switched to a zone defense to start the second quarter and it appeared to slow the Hawks down a bit. The Cavaliers were able to cut into the lead somewhat but Atlanta again finished the second quarter strong and took a 53-43 into the intermission.
Things went sideways a bit for Atlanta in the third quarter. Cleveland came out in attack mode and were aided by going 15-17 from the free throw line in the third quarter alone. The Cavs outscored the Hawks 36-28 in the third and Atlanta's lead was cut to just 81-79 heading to the fourth.
"Our defense probably wasn't up to par," Mike Scott said when asked about the third quarter. "But, you don't want to take all of the credit away from them. They did some good things. In that fourth quarter, we got back to how we played defense in the first quarter."
Scott and reserve point guard Dennis Schröder had huge contributions off the Atlanta bench. Scott finished with 14 points on 7-9 shooting. Schröder was again masterful finishing with 15 points, eight assists and just one turnover.
Atlanta finished the game strong and once again clamped down defensively on Cleveland. The Hawks began the quarter with a 17-4 run to turn a two point lead into a 15-point cushion.
"When we started the quarter, we got aggressive," said DeMarre Carroll. At first, we were playing kind of conservative, not just on the offensive end but on the defensive end. We were letting them shoot open three's. We got the lead back. We got our composure and got back to playing aggressive."
The Cavs shot just 29 percent in the fourth quarter and held LeBron James to just two field goal attempts. It wasn't your typical MVP type performance for James who finished with 18 points, six rebounds and eight assists but was saddled with nine turnovers and was just 5-13 from the field. Carroll and Kent Bazemore spent the majority of the night guarding James, but Budenholzer was quick to point out that trying to slow down a great player like him takes a team effort.
"It always starts with taking individual pride, but I think it takes five guys," said Budenholzer. "It takes a whole team working together and doing everything kind of in unison, on a string. At the point of the ball, DeMarre and Kent were very good. And our weak side was active and aware. We had to try to get out to shooters because he's such a good passer and he sees the court so well. It's like anything, it takes a group effort. I think it's great to be tested and challenged like we were tonight."
"We just played Hawks defense," Carroll said. "I have to give a lot of credit to my teammates because they were helping me out a lot. Like I've said before, I just want to be a gnat. When you're outside in the summer and you just can't get that gnat away from you -- That's all I want to be."
Budenholzer is never one to weight a particular game over another one. He quickly dismissed Friday's win as any sort of statement win for his club. He remains on an even keel and is adamant that the team approach things in a one day at a time manner.
"I don't think our group has felt that great about the way we've played for I don't know how long," Budenholzer said. "We're going to keep pushing through it and try to keep making progress. There's a lot of progress from the start of the year to where we are now, but I think tonight was a great night for us to play at a higher level and have a little better focus and a little better effort. Hopefully we can build off of this and play like this more."
He will never admit it publicly, but taking three of the four meetings with the Cavaliers has to provide a bit of a confidence boost should the two teams meet in the postseason.