CLEVELAND (AP) — As the jaw-dropping loss began to sink in, LeBron James sat on the floor away from his teammates, alone in his thoughts.
The playoffs are just days away, and the NBA champions are lost again.
Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 15 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter as the Atlanta Hawks, despite resting center Dwight Howard and sitting three other key starters, stunned James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 114-100 on Friday night.
Coming off a win over Boston on Thursday night, the Hawks outworked and outgunned the Cavs, who blew a chance to move closer to securing the top seed in the Eastern Conference with the kind of flat, uninspired performance that has become the norm in a disjointed season.
“The energy level was just real bad,” a disillusioned James said afterward. “I don’t know why.”
James struggled to explain what went wrong just two days after the Cavs had played one of their best games this season, blowing the Celtics out in Boston. That win seemed to signal a change, an acknowledgment that the postseason was quickly approaching and it was time to get serious.
And now, this.
“You expect for us to want to get better and we were doing that and we took a couple steps back tonight,” James said.
Mike Dunleavy added 20 for Atlanta and the veteran got a little revenge against the Cavs, who tossed him in as part of a trade for Kyle Korver in February. The Hawks recorded 39 assists and moved a game ahead of Milwaukee for fifth place in the East.
However, the Hawks, who also sat Paul Millsap, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder, weren’t celebrating. They host the Cavs on Sunday.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Hardaway said. “We’ve got to see them again. We know they’re a great basketball team and they’re the defending champs. We’ve got to come back on Sunday with the same intensity and the same mindset because they’re going to come after it.”
It was a shocking letdown by the Cavs, who have dealt with injuries all season, but don’t have any excuse for not giving it their all with so much at stake.
“Obviously a bad performance,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “To beat Boston and have the game that we had and to come back and not validate it against a team that didn’t even play their guys. I didn’t think we respected them tonight. I thought we thought we’d just mess around with the game until it was time to knuckle down.
“By that time they already had confidence. That’s who we’ve been. That’s who we are. I hate it. These games like this come back and bite you, especially down the stretch when you’re trying to get some rest. Trying to hold onto that No. 1 seed and getting rest and you come out and have a performance like this, it’s not good.”
James scored 27 and Kyrie Irving 18 for Cleveland, which was in a funk for most of the night but took an 87-85 lead in the fourth on a 3-pointer by Korver.
Hardaway took over from there.
Although listed as questionable before the game with knee and wrist injuries, Hardaway buried a pair of 3-pointers and delivered a vicious dunk during a 12-0 run when the Hawks put it away, shocking a sellout crowd and the Cavs who seem to have much more to worry about than their playoff seeding.
Hawks: The decision to sit Howard wasn’t announced until 40 minutes before tip-off. Coach Mike Budenholzer initially said Schroder would play. … Millsap (swollen left knee) and Bazemore (bone bruise) aren’t ready to play in consecutive games as they recover from injuries. … G/F Thabo Sefolosha announced he’ll make a donation from his court settlement after breaking his leg in a fracas outside a Manhattan nightclub in 2015. Sefolosha will reportedly receive $4 million and give “a substantial portion” to an organization that helps support and train public defenders.
Cavaliers: C Tristan Thompson missed his second straight game with a sprained thumb. Lue offered few details about Thompson’s injury or a timeline on a return. Thompson got hurt Tuesday against Orlando and missed Wednesday’s game in Boston, snapping his streak of consecutive games played at 447.
Irving has been bothered by tightness in his surgically repaired left knee and said Thursday it felt “terrible.” He went to the locker room in the third quarter for treatment, returned and checked in with 7:11 left.
“I’m doing everything possible to take care of my body, I’ve got a clear conscience with that,” he said. “But I also understand that sometimes it’s going to hurt. And I’ve got to be able to deal with it. So the next few days are pretty important.”
Hawks: Host the Cavaliers on Sunday.
Cavaliers: On their last visit to Atlanta, Cleveland made an NBA-record 25 3-pointers.