June 30, 2016

Partly cloudy

Defense leads Cavs by Hawks

CLEVELAND — Victory No. 60 wasn’t very nifty from an offensive standpoint, but the defense was good at the outset and got better and better as the game progressed.

That’s why the Cavaliers beat the Atlanta Hawks 93-88 Friday night at Quicken Loans Arena, giving them 60 victories for the second straight season and putting them on the verge of clinching home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

Combined with Orlando’s loss to San Antonio, Cleveland clinched the best record in the Eastern Conference. The Cavaliers’ magic number is one for clinching home-court advantage in a potential NBA Finals matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers, who played Utah late Friday.

The Cavaliers also became just the ninth franchise to post back-to-back 60-win seasons, which has happened 13 times overall in NBA history. Cleveland can match the franchise-record 66 wins it posted last season if it wins its remaining six games.

There weren’t a ton of highlight-reel plays at the offensive end, but the Cavaliers (60-16) held the Hawks (48-27) without a field goal for six minutes in the fourth quarter while going on a 10-0 run that clinched their 17th victory in the last 19 games.

It was Cleveland’s second straight win over a potential second-round playoff opponent, as the Cavaliers beat Milwaukee on Wednesday. Another possible second-round foe, Boston, hosts the team with the best record in basketball — for the second straight season — on Sunday.

“Atlanta’s a really good team,” said LeBron James, who led the Cavaliers with 27 points, 13 re-bounds and six assists. “We didn’t want to have any doubters.”

It was the kind of game Cleveland coach Mike Brown loves, as the Cavaliers didn’t give up easy shots and forced Atlanta’s best players to attempt difficult ones.

Give particular credit to Anthony Parker, Delonte West and, surprisingly, Mo Williams at that end of the floor, as they played huge roles in the poor outings of Joe Johnson (13 points, 6-of-17 shooting) and Jamal Crawford (17 points, 6-of-18).

But also give credit to the team concept, as the Cavaliers successfully helped out against At-lanta’s stars and repeatedly forced sub-par shooters like Josh Smith and Al Horford to make pe-rimeter shots, which they simply did not do often enough.

“Mo did a terrific job setting the tone for our defense on the ball,” Brown said of the 6-foot-1 Wil-liams, who also had a career-high four blocks. “Crawford is a terrific player, but Mo was up in him trying to take away space. He set the tempo.”

James and Williams (24 points) took care of the offense, while J.J. Hickson (career-high 16 re-bounds), James (13) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (10) were monsters on the boards. Those three players combined for three more rebounds than Atlanta’s entire team, which was outrebounded 55-36 over-all.

Hickson had seven offensive rebounds and Ilgauskas had six as Cleveland held a 20-11 edge in second-chance points.

James had just three points with 2½ minutes to go in the first half, but scored 24 from that point. Included was a 3-pointer that was followed by another by Williams to complete Cleveland’s game-deciding 10-0 run.

“Early on, I missed three layups I normally make,” James said. “My confidence never goes down.”

The real key, though, was defense.

The Hawks shot .411 for the game (37-of-90) and rarely got anything easy against a Cleveland team that really doesn’t have a lot on the line right now other than pride and maintaining momen-tum.

“We were flying around, covering for one another,” James said. “Every time someone drove, somebody stepped up.”

Cleveland’s Antawn Jamison left the game midway through the third period with a stinger in his left arm, but the injury is not believed to be serious.

Smith overcame a tough start to lead Atlanta with 20 points, 16 of them coming in the second half.

The Cavaliers have won 20 of their last 25 regular-season games against the Hawks and 24 of the last 29 meetings overall.

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com.

Rick Noland About Rick Noland

Rick Noland is the Cavs beat writer for The Gazette and the author of "Over Time," a compilation of stories he's written in more than 30 years as a journalist. He can be reached at 330-721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.