ATLANTA — The Cavs may have to re-purpose an old Alfred Lord Tennyson quote: “‘Tis better to have [Kevin] Love and lost than to never have Love at all.”
Not quite what Tennyson had in mind, but one might have asked such a question after the dismal performance the Cleveland power forward gave prior to leaving Tuesday’s marquee Eastern Conference matchup with the Atlanta Hawks.
Love made only one of eight shots — a three-pointer — and hit four free throws for just seven points in 24 minutes of play before exiting the game with back spasms. After the game, he spoke to reporters about his health.
“This was just one of those things where (my back) just locked up on me. It happened previously in a game back in November. I thought the guys (still) played extremely hard in the second half fighting back. …
“I came out with about 10 minutes left in the third, and I tried to go back in with about two minutes left. I felt okay, but I told (our trainers) at halftime it wasn’t feeling too great, so that’s when we decided to take me out.”
Not the kind of game one would hope to have with the team’s best player already sitting out.
LeBron James, who was celebrating his 30th birthday, got the night off to rest a sore knee. He was joined on the sideline by Shawn Marion, who is recovering from a left ankle sprain.
The absence of the Cavs stars got all of the early headlines, but Atlanta was missing some star-power of its own, playing without starting center Al Horford.
For Cleveland, the show was all about Kyrie Irving, who seemed to score at will, posting 35 points on 48-percent shooting and adding nine assists and six rebounds for what would have been an all-around stellar performance, save for his eight turnovers. Kyrie took ownership for his mistakes and offered some hope for Cleveland fans.
“I had to be aggressive since we had some guys down. I just had to take open shots when I saw them. Tristan (Thompson) and Kevin (Love) did a great job in setting screens for me to get me open. Tristan got some good looks, too. I turned the ball over a little too much tonight, but this just part of us growing up as a team. I have to be smarter in running our offense and settling us down.”
The game was a bit sloppy, with both teams combining for 33 total turnovers, third worst among the 10 games on the slate Tuesday night.
Some of the games’ worst plays are likely worthy of airing on Shaqtin’ A Fool. Among them, one must include an errant pass by Hawks backup point guard Dennis Schroder. The second-year guard passed the ball off of the head of his unsuspecting teammate, Pero Antic, and into the hands of Cavs guard Dion Waiters.
For all of the sloppiness, there were a few bright spots. The Cavaliers got timely contributions from forward Tristan Thompson, who shot 75-percent from the floor for 18 points and added 13 rebounds. Backup shooting guard Joe Harris added 13 points on 75-percent shooting from downtown.
For the Hawks, it was the usual suspects, with Paul Millsap providing 26 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. Kyle Korver added 19 points, making 5-of-8 shots from three-point range; he also added eight rebounds. Jeff Teague, despite his five turnovers, thrived in his matchup against Irving, scoring 23 points on 61-percent shooting and added 11 assists and five rebounds.
Forward Mike Scott and Schroder each provided a spark off of the bench. Both were aggressive, finding their spots and scoring when needed. Scott, had 12 points (two made threes) and five rebounds. Schroder 11 points and four assists.
The game itself felt off. Something just didn’t feel right with the atmosphere. Perhaps it had something to do with transient bandwagon Cleveland fans taking up a quarter of the lower level seating. Not the kind of showing that one might hope to see in an arena that was celebrating its third consecutive sellout crowd.
The crowd seemed dead at times. Rarely did they ever perk up for any dunks or jump shots.
The lack of energy seemed to even transfer over to the team’s halftime entertainment, the Hawks’ Sky Squad. The team of acrobatic dunkers missed more trampoline dunks than they made Tuesday night.
The Cavaliers, who still seem to be finding themselves, have now dropped three of their last four and are 18-13, fifth best in the East.
The Hawks, in spite of all of the turnovers and disappointing theatrics, provided their fans with something far greater, a 109-101 victory, giving the team a 14-win month, best in franchise history. With the Toronto Raptors losing to the Portland Trail Blazers, Atlanta moves within a half-game of first place in the conference.
Teague talked about the successful month the team has had.
“We’re just playing together. We believe we can win every game. Tonight, we came out and played hard together and as a team, we played defense.”
The Hawks, now, head into Friday night’s matchup with the Utah Jazz with a chance (with a Toronto loss to Golden State) to move into the top spot in the conference before starting a brutal three-game stretch against the Trail Blazers, Clippers and Grizzlies.
Perhaps a few more wins against the formidable Western Conference would help bolster Atlanta’s image as a legitimate contender.