Two months ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers looked to be another season away from reaching the playoffs.
They’re now within striking distance of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, though any loss could dash their slim hopes.
Cleveland aims for a sixth win in seven games Friday night when it visits the Atlanta Hawks, who are sliding out of the postseason picture.
The Cavaliers (31-45) were 5 1/2 games out of eighth place with a 16-33 record on Feb. 5 and looked likely to miss the playoffs for a fourth straight season. But their 15-12 record since is tied for the sixth-best in the subpar East, and they’ve moved two games out of eighth.
Atlanta (32-42) – which was in third place as recently as Feb. 4 – has gone 7-21 since, falling percentage points behind New York (33-43) for eighth place following Wednesday’s 105-92 home loss to Chicago.
Kyrie Irving played for the first time in nine games for the Cavaliers on Wednesday, posting 17 points and eight assists in a 119-98 win in Orlando. Cleveland, which is shooting 49.7 percent during the 5-1 stretch, scored a season-high 70 first-half points.
"This was a big game for us, but every game is big because of the position we’ve put ourselves in," coach Mike Brown said. "There is nothing tricky that we have to do. We just have to out and play hard and give ourselves a chance."
Dion Waiters scored 26, while Spencer Hawes and Tristan Thompson each added 20 points. Nine different players have had at least one 19-plus point performance while the club has gone 15-12, though Waiters shouldered the primary scoring load in Irving’s absence. He averaged 22.0 points in the eight games Irving was sidelined for due to a biceps injury.
Irving’s return fueled 25 fast-break points for the Cavaliers, their most since tallying 34 in a loss at Dallas on Feb. 7, 2011.
"Kyrie came in and got right in step with us," Brown said. "He helped us get the ball up the floor quickly and get into our attack. He gave us another weapon with a very high skill level."
Irving finished one shy of his career high with 40 points but Jeff Teague hit a jumper at the buzzer to give Atlanta a 127-125 double-overtime victory in Cleveland on Dec. 26. Teague finished with 34 points on 14-of-24 shooting and 14 assists, while Irving’s performance marked the fourth time in five matchups he’s scored at least 28. The one time he didn’t, however, was in the season’s only other meeting, a 108-89 loss when he missed all nine field goal attempts and failed to score for the only time in his career.
The Hawks are looking to win their seventh straight over Cleveland, but they’re averaging just 93.3 points while dropping seven of eight after a season-best five-game winning streak. They were up 42-38 early in the second quarter Wednesday before giving way to a 16-3 Chicago run en route to their fourth home loss in five tries.
Atlanta is seeking its seventh straight postseason appearance, which would be the longest streak in the East with Boston set to miss the playoffs.
"We still control our own destiny," said DeMarre Carroll, who scored eight points. "But now things got more interesting."
The Hawks shot a combined 50.5 percent over the first two meetings with Cleveland.