The Atlanta Hawks again battled to the end but came up just short in a 100-99 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The loss completes a four-game sweep for the Cavaliers who also ended Atlanta's season last year in the Eastern Conference Finals.
In many ways, it is a bitter pill to swallow for the Hawks. They were competitive in three of the four games despite otherworldly shooting from the Cavaliers. Yet they are again left searching for answers to what was a good but somewhat unfulfilling season.
"It goes without saying how proud I am of the guys' effort, how proud I am of our guys' character," Mike Budenholzer said following the game. "It really shows, in a game like today....we're all obviously frustrated with the result, but the effort and the character that comes through with our entire roster in this kind of game. Like I said to the guys, come into work every day from the first day of camp to today through the last possession, it's a great group to work with. We look forward to working and getting better going forward."
The Hawks had a chance at the end of regulation after LeBron James missed a long three-pointer with 14.9 seconds remaining. Atlanta was out of timeouts and Dennis Schröder pushed the ball quickly into the frontcourt. Schröder attacked the basket but saw his driving lane cut off by the Cavs' defense. The play resulted in a jump ball which led to a desperation heave from Paul Millsap as time expired.
"In the heat of the moment, it looked like one of those '60-40, 70-30' where it was most likely the right call," Budenholzer said when asked whether he thought Schröder was fouled on the final possession. "Maybe there was some contact or there could've been a call, but the referees have a tough job. If I was guessing, they probably go that one right. It would be nice to get it, but my guess is they got it right."
For what it is worth, Schröder didn't quite agree.
"I just tried to be aggressive and tried to get something out of it," Schröder commented on the last play. "I drove to the basket and they didn't call it, so you can't take it back. We have to live with that, and I have to make a better decision."
For a series that was full of close calls, you have to give the Cavaliers credit. They had an answer for every single wrinkle the Hawks threw their way. The biggest of which was a record setting performance from three-point range. Cleveland went 16 of 37 from three-point range in Game 4 and were 77 of 152 from downtown in the series.
"You have to give them credit," Kent Bazemore said after the game. "They had an answer for everything we tried to throw at them. LeBron did a tremendous job of getting his guys shots. Kevin Love was on fire tonight. He did exactly what we dared him to do. They have a special group over there. They're peaking at the right time. You have to give them credit. It sucks we got swept, but we left it all out there."
It all comes back to LeBron James who finished an assists shy of a triple-double in Game 4 with 21 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists. The Hawks did everything they could to get the ball out of his hands but struggled to contain his supporting cast.
"LeBron is a special player," Bazemore added. His passing ability, and he has a great feel for the game. People see how great he is, but I don't think they understand the feel he has for the game. To be able to throw those crosscourt passes right on the money and hit guys in the numbers and watch them shoot three's."
At the end of the day, Atlanta tried to shut off the paint in the series and to force the Cavaliers to beat them from the outside. They did just that and then some and perhaps served notice to the rest of the league in the process.
"Yes, that's what we were hoping for. It didn't happen," Paul Millsap answered when asked if he thought the Cavs shooting would cool off at some point. "Give them credit. They kept their confidence. They kept shooting the basketball. Kevin Love air-balled a few shots and kept shooting and making it. When a team has confidence like that, it's tough to stop them.
Setting their sights on the offseason
With their 2016 season in the rear view mirror, the Hawks were reluctant to talk about the future.
"Our season just ended minutes ago," Budenholzer answered when asked whether the team would look to rebuild or retool. "At the appropriate time, we'll sit down and we'll discuss. I know we feel strongly about our group. We have a great group to work with player-wise, coaching and front office....at the appropriate time, we'll take a look and we'll discuss all those things. We love our group."
This offseason could be a pivotal one for the franchise going forward with Al Horford and Kent Bazemore hitting free agency.
"It's hard to think about right now," Bazemore said. "Just thinking about and appreciating the opportunity I had this season...this locker room of guys in here and just how special this organization is and how special they've been to me. I'm not really looking ahead right now. I'm must living in the moment and soaking it all up."