Once Kyle Korver was ruled out for the remainder of the postseason, the prospect of the Hawks winning even a single game against the Cavaliers seemed highly improbable.
Once Al Horford was ejected in the second quarter of Game 3, that task became essentially impossible.
Atlanta battled throughout, and forced an overtime session. But in the end, Cleveland got the 114-111 victory, and took a 3-0 series lead that has the Cavaliers one game away from the NBA Finals.
It certainly wasn’t easy.
LeBron James opened the game by missing his first 10 shots — the first time in his career, regular season or playoffs, that it’s ever happened. He found other ways to impact the game, however, setting up his teammates with on-point passes, or crashing the boards when shots were missed.
James was laboring overall, and may have been dealing with the effects of a season’s worth of minor bumps and bruises beginning to take their toll. He finished with his 12th career playoff triple-double — 37 points, 18 rebounds, and 13 assists, while launching a career-high 37 shots.
The Hawks were in this one for most of the contest, and even seemed to have control of it at times. That changed for a stretch late in the second quarter, though, when Horford was ejected for appearing to throw an elbow at Matthew Dellavedova after the two had gotten tangled up, and Dellavedova had already fallen to the floor.
This play was reminiscent of the one that involved Dellavedova and Taj Gibson in the previous round of the playoffs that saw Gibson get ejected. The final action by both Gibson and Horford may or may not have been worthy of the flagrant-two all by itself, but when looking at the plays in their entirety, a case could certainly be made.
With Horford, he had Dellavedova with a Kelly Olynyk arm-lock that caused the two to fall to the floor in the first place. Dellavedova fell awkwardly into Horford’s leg, the same way he did in (inadvertently) taking Korver out for the remainder of the playoffs. Horford obviously felt it was intentional, and retaliated. But Dellavedova may have flashed back to Kevin Love’s season-ending injury when Horford had a hold of him, and could have felt justified in attempting to inflict some damage. Either way, the call by the officials — while harsh, controversial and appearing initially to be the final nail in Atlanta’s coffin — seemed to be correct.
The Cavaliers led by as many as 10 points in the fourth, but couldn’t put the Hawks away. Atlanta played with a level of desperation that Cleveland couldn’t match, and had a chance to win it at the end of regulation. But hero-ball in isolation is not this Hawks team’s strength, and Jeff Teague dribbling down most of the final 17 seconds remaining before launching (and missing) a tough three-pointer at the buzzer wasn’t the best use of Atlanta’s resources.
In the overtime session, the difference was James.
LeBron scored his team’s last five points, hitting a corner three with 36 seconds left to give his team the lead for good, before sealing the victory with a driving bank shot going to his left to give the Cavaliers a three-point lead which would remain in place when the final buzzer sounded.
It was an incredible effort by the shorthanded Hawks. But this game will ultimately be remembered for the brilliance of LeBron James, and the way he was able to overcome a career-worst start to finish with an historic effort that put his team one win away from a trip to the NBA Finals.