After changing nothing, they changed everything.
The starting lineup: Thabo Sefolosha for Kyle Korver.
The bench rotation: Kris Humphries entered in the first quarter, and free of body armor or assault weapons.
The game-day routine: “We’re just thinking about energy and effort and competing, and we’re doing everything we can to conserve,” coach Mike Budenholzer said.
Nice try. Didn’t matter. Good teams like the Hawks can have great games. But great teams like Cleveland can sit back in amusement and deliver a backhanded swat on cue.
The Hawks showed up with a pulse and all of their major organs intact Friday night. That represented a significant improvement from two nights earlier in Cleveland. But after leading at halftime and by as many as 11 points in the third quarter, they watched as the superior beings took over.
Final score: Cavaliers 121, Hawks 108.
The Hawks led 103-99 with seven minutes left, and then it was as if LeBron James and the basketball gods said, “Away with you, insignificant ones.”
James drives the lane for a dunk. James is left alone to hit a 3 for the lead. The Cavaliers outscored the Hawks 22-5 in the last seven minutes. Poof. The Atlantans were gone.
“When they’re shooting the ball like this, it’s really tough,” Kyle Korver said. “When you’ve got your seven-foot center, Channing Frye, shooting threes like that, there’s not much you can do.”
This is what great teams do. James had a relatively quiet night: 24 points. But Frye hit seven three-pointers and 27 points off the bench. Kevin Love hit five three-pointers. Cleveland has shot 53 percent (61 of 115) from three-point range in three games, outscoring the Hawks by 69 points (183-114) from outside the arc 183-114.
The loss moves the 0-3 Hawks to within one defeat of second-round playoff extinction. That more than likely will come Sunday. History tells us these things never end well. The Hawks have lost 10 consecutive games to Cleveland, dating to a sweep in last year’s Eastern Conference finals, and are 0-11 all-time in playoff games against the Cavaliers.
“Better effort,” Kent Bazemore had promised before the game.
That it was. It just wasn’t nearly enough.
Budenholzer had been asked a few times since the Game 2 abomination whether he would make any changes to his lineup or bench rotation, or whether Humphries would be unshackled from the bench. He gave empty or evasive answers, including this gem just before Friday’s game: “We’re considering all of those things. As the game unfolds, we’ll all see how it goes.”
He might as well have been speaking Latin.
This is what Budenholzer wouldn’t say: Sefolosha started. Korver was on the bench. It was the first time Korver didn’t start a game for reason other than injury since the 2012-13 season — regular season and playoffs. The reason for the switch seemed obvious: The Hawks needed more defense than Korver could provide and he hadn’t accomplished much on offense in the first two games of the series (1-for-3 on treys).
A strange thing happened: Not only did the Hawks get better, so did Korver. He made four 3-pointers in the first half and finished with (the 13 points surpassing his total for the first two games), and the Hawks led at halftime 63-55. So they went from a 36-point halftime deficit (74-38) Wednesday to an eight-point halftime lead Friday.
Better. They even did it without punching any Cleveland player in the kidneys, which was loosely suggested by Charles Barkley, master of the universe, or at least the soundbite.
It was all setup for a WWE cage match. Budenholzer gave significant playing time to Humphries … in the first quarter … of a playoff game.
The Hawks have been short of protruding elbows and forearm shivers in this series. It’s possible Humphries gave the Hawks a physical presence they have lacked in the playoffs, but the well-traveled forward also scored nine points in the first half.
Kim Kardashian, you had your chance.
It was difficult to know what to expect from either team after the 123-98 loss in Cleveland on Wednesday. Barkley probably had a point when he suggested the Hawks were soft and should have taken “somebody out” when Cavaliers kept firing 3-point attempts late in a lopsided game.
Budenholzer wouldn’t criticize his players’ effort in the first two games, but Cleveland had far too many uncontested shots. The fact the Cavaliers could’ve been sinking 3’s from Neptune also was a factor. They outscored the Hawks 120-66 on 3-point shots alone in the first two games of this series, making 40 of 76 treys (52.6 percent). The Hawks had the NBA’s sixth best 3-point defense during the season, allowing opponents only 33.3 percent shooting.
But the playoffs are a different animal, as the Hawks have learned. And they’re not in Cleveland’s league.
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