The Atlanta Hawks completed one of the most remarkable comebacks in NBA history on Sunday afternoon, having trailed by 26 points in the fourth quarter they took the game to overtime where the eventually prevailed 126-125 over the defending NBA champions Cleveland Cavaliers. Kyrie Irving (45 points) and LeBron James (32 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists) combined for 77 points. Paul Millsap scored 22 points (including the game-tying shot at the end of the fourth quarter) while Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 21 points.
In the process, the Hawks also won the season series 3-1.
The Hawks remain in control of the 5-seed, holding a game advantage against the Milwaukee Bucks while also owning the tiebreaker over the Bucks. For the Hawks to fall out of the 5-seed now, they would have to lose their final two games (vs. Charlotte and @ Indiana) while the Bucks would have to win their last two games (vs. Charlotte and @ Boston).
With the Washington Wizards now locked into the 4-seed, it seems as though that Wizards-Hawks is going to be the first round matchup we’ll see. A Bucks loss on Monday would all but guarantee (depending on the Indiana Pacers, who sit two games adrift of the Hawks, whose the tiebreaker with the Hawks is yet to be decided) that matchup tonight.
Comeback of comebacks
A giant heading here, sure, why not?
The Hawks came back from a 26 point deficit in the fourth quarter and the Hawks PR Twitter account, postgame, tweeted a whole bunch of great stats surrounding the comeback:
The Hawks have now come back from 20-or-more points in the second half 3 times this season (twice in the 4th quarter).
— Hawks PR (@HawksPR) April 9, 2017
(Those three occasions of coming back from 20-or-more points would be @ Milwaukee back on December 9th, @ Houston on February 2nd and now vs. Cleveland. Of course, the two occurrences of coming back from 20-or-more points in the fourth are those Houston and Cleveland games)
Atlanta is the third team in NBA history to come back from at least 26 points down in the fourth quarter and win the game.
— Hawks PR (@HawksPR) April 9, 2017
The Hawks are the 1st team to come back from 26 points down in the 4th quarter since the LA Lakers came back vs. Dallas on 12/6/02.
— Hawks PR (@HawksPR) April 9, 2017
Besides the Lakers and the Hawks the only other team to come back from at least 26 points in the 4th was Milwaukee at Atlanta on 11/25/77.
— Hawks PR (@HawksPR) April 9, 2017
Marc Stein of ESPN also chipped in with this phenomenal stat:
NBA teams had won their last 1,005 games when entering the fourth quarter with a lead of 25+ points before Cleveland's unraveling today #wow
— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) April 10, 2017
Make that 1,005-1.
But how did Atlanta get into that mess in the first place? Why were the Hawks down by such a margin to begin with?
Poor first quarter sets the tone
The Cavaliers definitely had Friday night (the night the Hawks went to Cleveland and won without the majority of their starters) on their minds as they headed into this game. They came out with intent and purpose and promptly torched Atlanta from the outside — the Cavs hit seven of their 19 threes in the first quarter alone. There were some tough contested threes the Cavs hit, to their credit, but the Hawks’ pick-and-roll defense could’ve been better, as could’ve been their transition defense.
That’s easy money for Kyle Korver.
The Hawks’ defense wasn’t particularly great for the first three quarters. On this possession, Dennis Schröder lets his man (Kyrie Irving) escape far too easily and LeBron finds him for a layup.
Here in transition, LeBron is steaming toward the rim (as he’s one to do) and José Calderón is left to try and provide some sort of protection between LeBron and the rim. Of course, that’s always going to end in disaster.
This is on Taurean Prince, LeBron’s defender. Paul Millsap points the assignment to him but when he does LeBron kicks into another gear and doesn’t give Prince the chance to recover. There were a few blown assignments like this, one of many dunks in this game for the Cavaliers. To be fair, some of those dunks were also caused by Kevin Love’s floor spacing which took Dwight Howard out of the paint, and pick-and-roll opportunities opened up in the same way. Channing Frye also surprised the Hawks by ducking to the rim off of the pick-and-roll instead of fading to the three-point line where he shoots that shot at a 40% clip, resulting in two dunks for Frye.
It all adds up.
The Hawks’ offense wasn’t particularly great either. Dwight Howard was the only player who could find some sort of consistency on the offense end, taking advantage of the smaller Frye in the post. The Hawks went to this often and it was fine when it was working but when it wasn’t it slowed down the offense and took the Hawks (as a group) out of rhythm.
Take this possession for example. Once Dwight receives the ball and starts his work, look at the other four Hawk players. Only Paul Millsap moves off the ball to try and get into position for a rebound or a pass, or something. Everyone else is just standing around while they wait for Dwight to put up a shot that might go in. Dennis is only moving to get out of the way. He settles into a spot eventually.
The Cavs also feasted in second chance scoring, outscoring the Hawks 26-6 in that category and 21 through the first three quarters.
The Cavs were worth every point of their lead and they put together three great quarters and the Hawks did not.
Into the fourth…
The Cavs were in complete control heading into the fourth quarter. The Hawks that were out (and it was mostly the starters) on the floor showed no fight at that time and the Cavs held a 26 point lead. So, what happened? How did the Hawks start digging into this one?
Coach Bud rolled with a lineup of José Calderón, Kent Bazemore, Mike Dunleavy, Ersan Ilyasova and Mike Muscala to start the fourth quarter with the starters on the bench. That unit — form the get-go of the fourth quarter — started moving the ball and themselves in a manner that the Hawks hadn’t for the first three quarters.
Like, this was the first possession of the fourth quarter. The ball movement and man movement is fantastic, and it was a sign of things to come from the Hawks.
This unit reeled off a quick 9-0 run, forcing Ty Lue into a timeout.
Lue, to his credit, didn’t mess around in this game. LeBron started the fourth quarter (despite being up 26 and the Hawks starters on the bench) and he brought Love and Irving back in with over eight minutes remaining when this game was still very much in Cleveland’s control.
But for the Hawks, it didn’t matter how many points they scored themselves, they had to get stops. And that’s what they did, they dug deep and got multiple stops.
On the switch, Ersan Ilyasova plays some great defense on Kyrie Irving, doesn’t let him get past him and the end result is a turnover.
Staying in front of Irving is no easy task and Mike Dunleavy also does a great job coming over and cutting off a lane for which Irving to drive into.
As coach Bud brought Malcolm Delaney, Millsap and THJ into the game, the Hawks didn’t lose their way. The ball movement continued to cause the Cavaliers problems.
That three-pointer cut the lead to 12 points. After an ‘and-1’ for THJ and a jumpshot from Mike Muscala, the Cleveland lead stood at just nine points. The Hawks come up with another stop but Millsap misses an absolute freebie on the other end in a 2-v-1 fastbreak with Bazemore.
At that moment, you’d be forgiven for thinking that play would be costly. The easiest opportunity to cut it down to seven points with just over two minutes left…
After another fantastic defensive sequence (where Millsap is guarding LeBron) the Hawks work it the other way, and this time Millsap makes sure that that ball went down that hoop, finishing with the rare ‘Mill-smash’.
In fact, that was Millsap’s second dunk of the game. Even rarer.
Following two made free throws from Delaney, the lead stood at just seven points and Delaney would play a huge part in one of the most important possessions of the game. Delaney hits Irving with a little crossover and gets by Kyrie, which draws Kevin Love away from Mike Muscala in the corner. Delaney finds Muscala and he hits the three-pointer.
Four. Point. Game.
Coming out of a timeout called shortly after this shot, LeBron is hit with a five-second inbound violation, resulting in a turnover. James was not happy with the call believing he had called a timeout in time.
Following a shooting foul on THJ committed by LeBron, Timmy goes 1-for-2 at the line and, with 13 seconds left on the clock and down by three, the Hawks are forced to intentionally foul. Irving is the one that’s fouled and he sinks both of the resulting free throws, putting the Cavs up 111-106. The Hawks call a timeout.
THJ inbounds the ball to Millsap in the left corner. Paul rises from behind the three-point line and he is fouled by LeBron James in the act of shooting, resulting in three free throws.
That was LeBron’s fifth foul another late game blunder in this game. A five second violation, a shooting foul on THJ and now a foul on a three-point shot. That’s not the LeBron we know.
Millsap would sink all three free throws to make it 111-109. But Cleveland have the ball with eight seconds left and hold a two point lead. This is still their game to lose. After the third made free throw from Millsap, LeBron inbounds the ball to Kyrie, who is very quickly trapped in the corner and he’s tied up. Jump ball.
The officials, however, missed a call here. Both Bazemore and Millsap are out of bounds as they tie up Irving.
Last second jumpball on Kyrie, both Hawks defenders are out of bounds pic.twitter.com/yvk8pCZnJA
— Fastbreak Breakfast (@fastbreakbreak) April 9, 2017
In the official’s defense, he’s the only official who can see this play clearly. His primary attention is on whether there’s a foul committed by either Millsap or Bazemore or if Irving is legitimately tied up. He can’t see everything at once and no other official is going to see who’s out of bounds or not. It’s a tough non-call but that’s how it goes sometimes.
LeBron James tried to call a timeout as Kyrie was trapped, a timeout which was denied to him. The explanation he was given as to why he was not granted a timeout did not please him.
“He told me that I’m not allowed to call timeout because he didn’t know who had possession of the ball. And I was the one who entered the ball to Kyrie. And as soon as I seen Millsap go trap Kyrie in the short corner, I looked at him and called timeout twice — at least twice — and he wasn’t even paying me no attention. And that’s when the jump ball happened. I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I can’t call timeout because I don’t know who has possession of the ball. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know the tie up.’ I said, ‘That doesn’t make any sense because we have the ball. I entered the ball to Kyrie, so you shouldn’t even be worried about the tie up or not. I’m calling it as soon as I saw Kyrie is getting tied up in the corner.’ So I’ve never heard that one before. I’ve never heard that explanation before in my life.”
— LeBron James
Baze is the one who’ll jump with Kyrie. The ball is tipped, Muscala does a great job of getting the ball toward Millsap and Paul works his magic.
Paul Millsap does Paul Millsap things.
It’s interesting, Millsap wanted to jump this ball but Kent Bazemore (and the officials) had other ideas.
“I wanted to jump. He (Bazemore) wanted to jump. He told me go and get back. The referee told him to get in there. I was a little mad about that. (Muscala) did a great job on the play of not giving up on it. The ball just found me. I picked it up and made the shot.
— Paul Millsap
The contribution of Mike Muscala to this play can’t be understated. He played a massive part in getting the ball to Millsap, putting him in the position to succeed.
“The ball, they both kind of whiffed on it. The ball fell to the ground and Kyrie didn’t want to touch it because he thought it was going to be a violation. I could be wrong but it was moving fast. I saw it. I was kind of being held but I dove on it and got it to Paul. It was a weird play but Paul made a great shot.”
— Mike Muscala
It was amazing seeing the coaches like Darvin Ham and Taylor Jenkins so pumped up after that shot. A 26 point lead completely erased in one quarter, a 44-18 fourth quarter (ending on a 16-4 run) that saw the Hawks produce 14 assists. The Hawks had 15 assists on the game through the first three quarters.
“The ball started moving and guys started making some shots, making some plays…”
— Coach Mike Budenholzer
To overtime, and things didn’t start well for the Hawks. They struggled to score and the Cavs scored the first five points of the overtime period and in overtime it’s all about striking first. The Hawks eventually got going with a Malcolm Delaney jump shot with 2:19 left in OT and the period then saw its biggest turning point.
Off of a missed shot by J.R. Smith, LeBron contests with Millsap in the air for the rebound and LeBron is called for a push in the back — his sixth foul.
This was a horrible call. Very clearly, LeBron doesn’t make any significant contact with Millsap to warrant a foul.
“It wasn’t a foul on my sixth foul. I knew I had five [fouls]. I knew the ball was going long. So I may have grazed Millsap a little bit, but I mean, throughout the course of a game [that happens]. I didn’t push him or anything like that.”
— LeBron James
Obviously a controversial and bogus call, but both teams experienced such calls, not just Cleveland.
Example one: a blatant backcourt violation committed by Deron Williams which wasn’t called.
Example two: a ghost call on Paul Millsap for a “foul” on LeBron James in overtime.
It goes both ways.
After that, the Hawks took their first lead of this game with a three-pointer from (who else?) Paul Millsap but Cleveland responded with a huge three from Kyle Korver.
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) April 9, 2017
The Hawks’ official Twitter had an appropriate (also amazing) reaction to that three.
C'mon Kyle ?
— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) April 9, 2017
Following a free throw from Kevin Love, the Cavs led by two points (120-118) with 42 seconds left in overtime. THJ, operating as the point guard, goes into attack mode and drives into the paint and forces Richard Jefferson away from Mike Muscala in the corner. THJ whips the ball to the corner and Moose hits another three to give the Hawks a lead they would not let go.
Coach Bud called this shot the most important of the game and was full of praise for Muscala.
“Probably the biggest shot of the game was the corner three on the kickout from Tim Hardaway Jr. Great drive from Timmy, finds him in the corner. Muscy has been playing well. Friday in Cleveland and the games leading up to that. He obviously started the season well and hopefully he’s back in a good place. He can do a lot of things for us on both ends when he’s playing well.”
— Coach Mike Budenholzer
THJ knew that Moose was going to be open.
“Going down the lane and Love came over. They were shifting off (Muscala) the whole entire game. He was my outlet. Everybody was telling him to be ready and he knocked it down.”
— Tim Hardaway Jr.
After this three, the Cavs called for a timeout and, from the resulting timeout the ball is turned over, and Kent Bazemore pounces and (just about) scores, giving the Hawks a three point lead. Immediately after that, Irving barrels into Millsap and is called for an offensive foul.
“Kyrie was getting a little tired. LeBron went out (fouled out) and he had to shoulder the load. I just wanted to make him walk it up the floor, take his legs out from under him and make him drive. Those little nuances you try to do as players. Richard (Jefferson) led him a little too far and I was able to jump it. I almost smoked the layup. I looked back to see where he was and the ball’s not there. That was a heck of a play. That’s why they brought me back, to guard the best player and makes plays.”
— Kent Bazemore
Irving, postgame, was unhappy with the charge call.
“How much is the fine for talking about the refs?. It’s like $50 [thousand], $25? Not worth it. Not worth it, so sorry. I had some good conversation with the refs — just a few plays that didn’t go our way. That’s not the kind of the first step that led to the breakdown of what happened in that fourth quarter and why it extended the game. There were some things that could’ve gone a different way but didn’t, and now we just got to move on from here.”
— Kyrie Irving
Following two free throws from THJ to put the Hawks up by four points, Kyrie banked a three at the buzzer but it didn’t matter. The Hawks had won.
With nothing to lose, and new found motivation from some of the exiting crowd, the Hawks found the drive they needed.
“We were down 26 and a lot of the fans were leaving. We just said to ourselves in the timeouts and huddles that we are all we got. Go out and play for each other. Play for the city. Play for the fans that are staying here. And we came out with the win.”
— Tim Hardaway Jr.
Paul Millsap described the game as the second best he has seen in his time with the Hawks, with Friday night’s game against the Cavs being number one.
“It’s probably the second best game I’ve seen by the Hawks. The first being the other night against Cleveland and what our reserves did. Give them all the credit. They did it again tonight. They did a great job of coming in and playing basketball the way we want to play basketball.”
— Paul Millsap
Coach Bud, meanwhile, was proud of the resilience his group showed.
“Considering the circumstances…I didn’t know what the number was, but to be 26 down and just showing the resiliency of the group, hopefully that shows the fiber and the core of a program. Give them a lot of credit for how they played the first three quarters. They were unbelievable. So for our group to keep grinding, keep wanting to compete and never giving up, hopefully we can build off this. This is an important time of the year. We want to be getting better going into the playoffs. Tonight in a lot of ways, we did that.”
— Coach Mike Budenholzer
Overall, this was just an incredible win for the Hawks and an absolute capitulation from the Cavs. They should never have let this game slip away. But the Hawks won’t care one bit. A combination of excellent defense in the fourth quarter, excellent offense in the fourth (excellent ball and man movement), Paul Millsap, the Hawks’ bench (which outscored the Cavs’ bench 44-16) and heavy, heavy minutes for Cleveland’s big 3 helped the Hawks pull through. LeBron’s blunders down the stretch and the weak call that earned him his sixth also helped.
“Jumping out to that lead, being up 26, that’s who we are and that’s how we’re capable of playing. Everything went wrong for us in that fourth quarter. Every single thing. From inbounding the ball to jump balls, to whatever. Hats off to those guys, they did a good job of coming back in that fourth.”
— Coach Ty Lue
Though the Hawks were awful for three quarters the Hawks showed fight the necessary fight in the fourth quarter and when you do that it’s incredible what can follow…
There were two notable players who did not play a single second of the fourth quarter and overtime period as the Hawks made their comeback: Dennis Schröder and Dwight Howard.
It’s strange, isn’t it? Without Dennis and Dwight on Friday, the Hawks registered a season-high 39 assists and pick up the win. Through the first three quarters on Sunday, the Hawks registered 15 assists and are getting their butts kicked by 26 points. When those two players went out, the Hawks registered 16 assists and won the game.
Coincidence or correlation?
Coach Bud labelled the decision to not play Dennis and Dwight in the fourth quarter and overtime as a “gut feel”, but I can’t help thing there’s something to this. Not so much with Dwight (who did have a decent game all things considered) nor coach Bud’s comments but more so with Dennis, who doesn’t really facilitate the Hawks-offense.
It’s an interesting thought, if nothing else.
Taurean Prince didn’t have the greatest game (seven points on 2-of-6 shooting) and he may also find himself on Shaqtin A Fool for this blown dunk.
Shaq sees all, TP.
The Hawks (42-38) play their last regular season home game on Tuesday when they take on the Charlotte Hornets.