ATLANTA — One of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ most unexplainable losses during their disappointing 5-7 start came at home on Nov. 5 against a rebuilding and injury-depleted Atlanta Hawks team that was riding an eight-game losing streak.
“That’s a question I cannot answer,” LeBron James said when asked afterward to explain the lack of early energy and focus in a 117-115 defeat that saw the Cavaliers trail 27-11 after seven minutes. “I was ready to go. A lot of the guys were ready to go.”
Cleveland plays the Hawks in Atlanta on Thursday night to close November, and the Cavaliers are in a much better place than they were a few weeks ago.
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James said after the loss to the Hawks that the Cavaliers needed to string together good games to get on track, and they subsequently did just that.
Cleveland (14-7) comes to Philips Arena on a nine-game winning streak and is starting to close in on the Boston Celtics for the best record in the Eastern Conference despite being without Isaiah Thomas, likely until January, and having Derrick Rose and Tristan Thompson injured.
The Cavaliers were 0-3 in the second half of back-to-back games during their slow start, but they beat Miami 108-97 in Cleveland on Tuesday after winning 113-91 the previous night at Philadelphia.
Cleveland built a big early lead against the Heat and easily withstood the third-quarter loss of James, who had 21 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and five steals before being ejected for the first time in his career.
Kevin Love had 22 points in the first quarter, 32 by halftime and finished with 38 points in 25 minutes. He continued his strong play since moving from forward into the middle to replace Thompson.
Better defense has been the key for the Cavaliers, who have held four of their past five opponents under 100 points. Cleveland is allowing 99.8 points per game during its winning streak.
“Communication has been big,” Love said of the turnaround. “We are starting to put things together.”
The Cavaliers will be playing their third game in four days while the Hawks (4-16) have had a four-day break since a 112-78 home loss to the Toronto Raptors on Saturday.
The blowout followed an encouraging 116-104 home victory over the New York Knicks the night before. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer wasn’t happy with his team’s commitment Saturday, especially defensively.
“I felt like our defense — not just in the paint but everywhere — was not good enough for an NBA game,” Budenholzer said after his team allowed the Raptors to shoot 54.8 percent.
Forward Luke Babbitt and forward/center Mike Muscala could play against the Cavaliers. Babbitt (back) has missed the past three games and Muscala (ankle) the past 11.
The Hawks were swept by the Cavaliers in the 2015 Eastern Conference finals and again in the 2016 Eastern Conference semifinals.
Atlanta won three of four meetings with the Cavaliers last season, however, and the early victory this season gave the Hawks a three-game winning streak against Cleveland.
“They beat us pretty good, but we’re playing much better basketball now,” James said. “We’ll be ready for them.”
Cleveland guard Iman Shumpert was unavailable against the Heat after playing seven minutes at Philadelphia, and he is questionable for the Hawks game because of a swollen left knee. He missed three games before returning against the 76ers.