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Tuesday Night Brings Hawks’ First Real Test

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A 4-2 start is encouraging, but the Hawks will face their first high-level opponent on Tuesday night

NBA: Houston Rockets at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Six games into the season, there’s a lot to like from the Atlanta Hawks. A 4-2 record, wins against the Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards, and an encouraging start from Dwight Howard are all good signs. Atlanta has (mostly) capitalized on a fairly easy schedule so far, but now has a difficult test coming on Tuesday night.

While much of the country will be watching election results, the Atlanta Hawks will play the Cleveland Cavaliers in Quicken Loans Arena. Hawks fans need no introduction to Lebron James and company, and this year’s version of the Cavs (at 6-0) looks as strong as ever. Atlanta has played well so far, but this will be the first true test of the 2016-17 season.

Although the team has had a fairly easy schedule so far, the Hawks have played very well. As of Monday afternoon, Basketball-Reference has their defensive rating and net rating near the top of the league. Atlanta trails only the L.A. Clippers in these two categories.

While the Hawks rank only 14th in offensive rating, this start represents the best-case scenario for Atlanta. This is a defense-first team, one that relies on Paul Millsap’s all-around greatness and Howard’s rim protection and rebounding. The Hawks don’t have enough shooting to blow teams out of the water, and turning to defense was always going to be the plan this year. The fact that the team’s net rating — a differential of 12.47 points per 100 possessions — is so high speaks to the early effectiveness of this strategy.

It’s reasonable to expect that the Hawks fantastic ratings will begin to fall when they start playing elite competition, though, and the first of such meetings comes against Cleveland. After a 6-0 start and a league-leading 115.80 offensive rating, the Cavaliers are firmly establishing themselves as the clear frontrunners in the East. This is not surprising at all, as the shooting and overall talent on this team easily overshadows nearly every other contender. While Cleveland’s last win was a somewhat underwhelming 102-101 victory over Philadelphia, Atlanta will still be facing a very dangerous opponent on Tuesday.

Cleveland will open the game as a clear favorite, and (especially with Kyle Korver out) this will be a very challenging matchup for the Hawks. With a game like this, especially early in the season, the box score is not the final indicator of what this game means for Atlanta’s future, though. A win will obviously be encouraging, and a loss discouraging, but seeing how Atlanta’s revamped defense and second unit play tonight will help determine just how good this team really is. The Hawks and Cavaliers play four times this season, and playing well in these contests is important for the Hawks’ season-long hopes.

It’s early in the season, and it still will be after Tuesday night. But the Hawks are about to face elite competition for the first time this season.