January 20, 2019

Changes were made, but the song remains the same. A number of adjustments gave the Atlanta Hawks a fourth quarter lead, before giving way to some physical play and a barrage of three-pointers from the Cleveland Cavaliers, who finished strong to gain a 3-0 series lead.

Sound familiar?

This particular instance of history repeating itself has left a bitter taste of deja vu in Atlanta, and turned coach Mike Budenholzer into Bill Murray’s Phil from “Groundhog Day.” Coach Bud has approached this recurring day in different ways, but no amount of tweaking has been able to change the outcome: 10 straight losses to Cleveland.

Budenholzer made his first adjustment to the starting lineup, replacing Kyle Korver with defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha and moving Kent Bazemore to shooting guard for a more athletic look. Putting Korver on the second unit appeared to unlock his three-point shooting, connecting on four of six first half three pointers (he shot 5-for-9 from three for the game) and scoring 13 of his 18 points at halftime. The Hawks closed the first half on a 20-5 run to lead 63-55 and looked intent on making a series of it.

Another adjustment made was to trap Kyrie Irving on pick-and-rolls as the Hawks did against Isaiah Thomas in the first round to try to get the ball out of his hands. Irving said the defensive attention contributed to his slow start in the game.

“I see that they’re blitzing me and I’m coming to the bench and kind of looking for answers for myself,” said Irving. “They took me out of a rythm I’m usually in coming into games.”

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But just as as it was in the first round against Stan Van Gundy and the Detroit Pistons, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue keeps coming up with answers against Budenholzer.

“Try to play without the screen at times,” said Lue of his advice to Irving. “They were trying to trap him and double team him.”

Lue was esentially telling his point guard to beat the trap by getting into the lane before it arrives. To help Irving get into the lane, Lue made a lineup tweak of his own by spacing the floor with shooters.

“The lineup with Kevin [Love] and Channing really gave them problems,” said Lue. “It opened up the floor for Kyrie and LeBron to get to the basket. If their bigs help then Kevin and Channing will be wide open for shots.”

One glance at PopcornMachine.net’s game flow illustrates Lue’s point. In the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers were plus-13 with a lineup of Irving, James, Frye, J.R. Smith and Love. Back-to-back threes by Irving and Frye ignited a closing 28-7 run by the Cavaliers. The Hawks led 101-99 after Frye’s three but James hit a three moments later to put the Cavs in front 104-103, their first lead of the half. James also had some advice for Irving to help him overcome his slow start.

“In the middle of the third I told him, I don’t care what happened up to this point, just hit the reset button,” said James. “From that point on–from the four minute mark in the third quarter all the way to the fourth–he just did what Kyrie does. He hit big shots for us.”

“When they put two people on the ball in the first half I kind of saw, are they going to full rotate to me,” Frye asked rhetorically. “And they didn’t. There was some space. Sometimes teams are going to stay attached to me and tonight they didn’t.”

The result was a game-high 27 points for Frye on 7-for-9 shooting from three-point range. Irving and James added 24 each while Love had 21 with a game-high 15 rebounds. James added 13 rebounds and eight assists while Tristan Thompson had seven points and 13 rebounds. Cleveland crushed Atlanta 55-28 in rebounds but Budenholzer denied that was the central reason for the loss.

“We out-rebounded them in the first game and lost,” said Budenholzer. “I think what matters more is who scores the most. They had an awful lot of shooting on the court for most of the fourth quarter.”

While Cleveland’s players have raved about their game planning and preparation, the same can’t be said of the Hawks.

“They really just got hot,” said Horford. “Part of it had to do with Love and Frye playing out there at the same time. We didn’t prepare for that and they took advantage. If they keep shooting it like that, they’re going to be unstopable.”

While Horford mentioned preparation, Millsap put it on the players for failing to deliver in the fourth quarter.

“They turned it up a notch and I think that we didn’t step up,” said Millsap. “I don’t think we turned it up when they turned it up. That can cause you a problem. We didn’t match their focus or their intensity in the fourth quarter.”

With both teams enjoying vastly improved health compared to last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, it has become apparent that Cleveland benefits more than the Hawks from having all its pieces available.

Cleveland looks to be in championship contending form and Frye’s presence could ultimately make a difference in the NBA Finals.

For the Hawks, it’s now 10 straight losses. Ten straight mornings of “I Got You Babe,” but instead of an annoying clock radio it’s J.R. Smith hitting another impossible three. The Cavaliers are poised to extend that streak Sunday in Atlanta, but perhaps the Hawks can still find a way to redeem themselves and awaken to a new day in which their fate hasn’t yet been sealed.

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Kacy Sager

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