Dribbles: Cavs learn hard way Hawks are real deal

Random dribbles on the Cavaliers’ 106-97 loss to the host Atlanta Hawks on Friday:

1. Everyone knew what the Hawks were going to do, and the Hawks came out and did it. They came out with good energy, spaced the floor and passed the ball very well. Welcome to Hawks basketball this season.

2. The Cavs simply weren’t ready for any of this. They’re not alone, as the Hawks have pretty much been playing this way against everybody. But the Cavs came in as perhaps the hottest team in the NBA. They exited as the second-hottest team in the East.

3. A lot of people still want to call the Hawks a fluke, but sorry, a record of 49-12 is not fluke-ish. That’s domination. With the Hawks, the ball always goes to the right guy. They have given up any sort of individualism under outstanding coach Mike Budenholzer. And that can take you places.

4. Offensively, this was a strange game for the Cavs. Kyrie Irving scored a game-high 20 points, but failed to hit a 3-pointer (0-of-5). LeBron James scored 18 and passed for eight assists, but committed nine turnovers. Kevin Love scored 14, but shot 4-of-11. All but one of Love’s attempts was a three.

5. The Hawks did a nice job defensively, but the Cavs were also responsible for their lack of rhythm. There was just too much standing, too much dribbling and too many turnovers (17 overall).

6. Nor did the Cavs have any sort of a transition game going. That’s when they’re at their best. But it’s hard to conduct a fast-break when you’re constantly taking the ball out of the basket after opponent makes. That’s precisely what happened, as the Hawks buried 51 percent of their shots.

7. Still, the worst part of this game was how the Cavs fell in an early (and huge) hole. The Hawks shot a sizzling 71 percent in the first quarter to build a 17-point lead. If not for that, this could’ve been a different story.

8. Finally, the Cavs started doing what they needed to do in the third quarter. They started being aggressive, attacking the basket and making some shots. They came all the way back and actually took a two-point lead. Then came the fourth, and the methodical Hawks went back to work — and on a 17-4 run.

9. Cavs coach David Blatt: "We lost some defensive focus at the beginning of fourth quarter and allowed them to get back into their flow. And they’re good when they’re playing in their rhythm and flowing freely."

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10. Basically, the Cavs learned what a lot of other teams are learning: The Hawks are very methodical, and when you take away one thing, they simply go to another. Nothing seems to distract them or get under their skin. They play the game the right way.

11. Just my opinion, but I thought the Cavs went too small in the fourth quarter. Neither Timofey Mozgov nor Tristan Thompson played in crunch time. Kendrick Perkins can’t seem to see the floor at all. Not sure why they signed Perkins if he’s not gonna play.

12. Nor can I figure out why Blatt has decided against using his biggest players late in the game. It’s something he’ll need to rectify for the playoffs. I’ve never coached in the league, but I have covered it for 21 years. And I’m confident in saying the Cavs will really need their centers/big men when the games mean the most.

13. This certainly isn’t intended to bury the coach. The Cavs (39-25) have really turned things around lately. Blatt is a major reason why. Plus, they were playing their third game in four nights, with another Saturday (at home vs. Phoenix). The Hawks had two days of rest. That’s not an excuse, because this was a winnable game at one point and the Cavs blew it. But they also looked fatigued during some important stretches.

14. As Blatt said: "We showed some character getting back in it, but (the first-quarter deficit) probably cost us at the end."

15. Blatt received his first technical of his NBA career when James was whistled for an offensive foul. It was a horrible call in a game full of them, both ways. "I just think LeBron’s getting hit every time he goes to the basket," Blatt said of the technical, "and half of them are getting ignored."

16. Meanwhile, LeBron summed up his night this way: "I sucked."

17. If the teams meet in the playoffs, which they very well could, the Cavs probably understand now that they’ll have to compete for the full 48 minutes. They’re so talented, that’s not always the case. But against the Hawks, they can’t get caught up in some of this one-on-one business. They absolutely must move the ball.

18. The Hawks did an outstanding job of forcing LeBron away from the basket and often toward the sidelines. That caused him to try to throw the ball across the court, and it was turnover city, baby.

19. One thing that makes the Hawks’ undersized big men so effective is the fact they have excellent mid-range games. Both center Al Horford (19 points) and power forward Paul Millsap (16 points, three steals) are mobile and can handle the ball. They can cut, catch and shoot in traffic, and really pass the ball. Horford and Millsap are playing in a system built for their skills.

20. This is hardly the end of the world for the Cavs. They have some things that need cleaned up, but they are a lot closer to the Hawks than they were two months ago. They may not meet for another month and a half. So there is still time to figure it out. It’s just that right now, reality has set in. If the Cavs are to beat the Hawks in a seven-game series, they will need to play even better than they have been.