The Atlanta Hawks played quite well for three-plus quarters on Friday night. It just wasn't enough, as the Cleveland Cavaliers continued their blistering shooting from the previous two contests, exploding in the fourth quarter to send Mike Budenholzer and his team into a 3-0 series hole with a 121-108 final margin.
The story of the early going was the controversial decision to insert Thabo Sefolosha into the starting lineup, replacing Kyle Korver, and in the early going, it "paid off" for Atlanta. The Hawks began the night on an 8-3 mini run that allowed the home team to force an early timeout from Tyronn Lue, but in short order, that advantage evaporated. Kevin Love scored the first 13 points of the night for Cleveland, and with the team shooting 6 of 10 from three in the first period, the visiting Cavs were able to take a 31-28 lead after 12 minutes.
The second quarter, however, was owned by Atlanta... even if it took a while. The two sides exchanged blows over the first portion of the period, but the Hawks strung together a massive run down the stretch prior to halftime. Atlanta outscored Cleveland by a 20-5 margin over the last 5:11 of the half, using long-range marksmanship and high-end energy (keyed in part by the emergence of Kris Humphries) to take an unlikely 63-55 lead into the break.
Over the course of the second quarter, the Hawks connected on 7 of their 8 attempts from three-point distance while shooting 70% from the field, and that 35-point explosion helped to buoy the team's overall production in the first half. All told, Atlanta made 10 threes and 54% from the field in the half, using 16 assists and a defense that held the Cavaliers to "only" 47% from three to overcome a massive rebounding disparity (30-14) for that eight-point lead.
The good fortune would continue into the third quarter, as well, as a monster Al Horford dunk followed by a three from the big man allowed Atlanta to claim a 10-point edge at 68-58. From there, the Cavs did threaten with five straight points to force a timeout from Mike Budenholzer, but in general, the home team was able to stem the tide thanks to a 13-point third quarter showing from Paul Millsap, allowing the Hawks to hold a six-point lead as the fourth quarter arrived.
In that closing period, things didn't go particularly well.
Cleveland's offense continued to cook as Atlanta's failed to keep pace, beginning with back-to-back threes from Kyrie Irving and Channing Frye to bring the Cavs within a 101-99 margin with 8:38 to play. Following a timeout, LeBron James took over, engineering a massive spurt that included a massive dunk of his own, pushing Cleveland to a 14-1 run that gave the visitors a 113-104 lead with fewer than four minutes to play.
The final push that Atlanta needed to compete never arrived, as the offense continued to sputter (17 points in the 4th) while the Cavaliers executed when needed. Kevin Love sunk a corner three as the dagger to give Cleveland a 10-point lead with less than two minutes remaining, and the final margin settled at 121-108 as the saddened crowd exited Philips Arena.
Game 3 represented a particularly brutal result for the Hawks in that they played quite well in many facets. Atlanta shot 49% from the floor, connected on 16 of their 34 threes (47%) over 48 minutes, and created 29 assists while producing beautiful offense for more than three quarters. Still, the team was absolutely unable to control the defensive glass, where Cleveland snagged 18 offensive rebounds, and the Cavs continued their absolutely unbelievable three-point shooting to the tune of 21 makes in 39 attempts.
There were strong individuall performances, particularly from Jeff Teague (19 points, 14 assists, 1 turnover), Al Horford (24 points on 15 shots) and Kyle Korver (18 points, 5-9 from three in a bench role), but the barrage from the Cavaliers never let up and, frankly, the Hawks simply blinked first. Visions of advancement to the Eastern Conference Finals are likely a distant memory at this point, but Atlanta will be looking to avoid a second consecutive season with a season-ending sweep on Sunday afternoon. Stay tuned.