ATLANTA (AP) — LeBron James tossed a pass to no one in the corner. He argued about a call so vehemently that he received a technical. By the end of his frustrating night, the Atlanta Hawks had sent a clear message to the King:
We’re the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
Starting fast and finishing strong, the Hawks won their sixth in a row and stretched their lead in the East to a staggering 11 games, beating the team that was considered the overwhelming favorite at the start of the season. Limiting James to 18 points and forcing him into nine turnovers, Atlanta pulled away for a 106-97 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday.
DeMarre Carroll pestered James from the tipoff to the final buzzer, and got plenty of help from his teammates.
“I wanted to be a gnat,” Carroll said. “You know, when you’re outside in the summer, and you can’t get that gnat away from you.”
Al Horford scored 19 points, five of his teammates were in double figures, and Kyle Korver hit two big 3-pointers in the fourth quarter after struggling much of the night.
Clearly inspired on a night when Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins was honored by the team, Atlanta got plenty of balance and showed again it might be capable of doing something that never happened during No. 21’s brilliant career — win a championship.
James shot just 5 of 13 and repeatedly had to give up the ball, overwhelmed at the pressure coming at him from every direction. He had eight assists, but that was more than offset by the ones he threw away.
Kyrie Irving led the Cavaliers with 20 points.
“I can’t be worried about the Hawks right now. It’s not like we’re going to face them in the first round,” James said. “It was the first time they used that game plan on us. They kind of caught us by surprise. Down the road, if we get to that point, we’ll be all right.
The Hawks (49-12) won for the 42nd time in the last 48 games.
“This was an important win,” said Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder, who had 15 points off the bench. “That’s a great team we were playing tonight.”
After building a 17-point lead with a blistering performance in the first quarter, the Hawks closed it out after taking an 81-79 edge to the final period.
Korver, who missed his first five shots — four of them beyond the arc — finally got going with a pair of 3s early in the fourth. The second gave the Hawks a 91-81 lead, prompting Korver to let out a big scream on his way back down the court.
“It seems like I’ve gotten off to a slow start in every game since January,” Korver said. “It was good to see the ball go in. I probably got a little excited.”
The Hawks had six players in double figures, with Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap both scoring 16. Mike Scott had 14 and Carroll chipped in with 11.
In what some billed as a possible preview of the Eastern finals, both teams went at it with postseason-like intensity.
Horford jawed with Timofey Mozgov after one skirmish. Carroll sent James tumbling to the court with a hard foul midway through the fourth.
There was plenty of excitement off the court, as well. The Hawks unveiled a statue of Wilkins outside Philips Arena, wore throwback jerseys from the Dominique era, and honored No. 21 at halftime with a painting and a framed jersey autographed by all the current Hawks players.
“Even though I’m not from Atlanta, I’m from Atlanta,” Wilkins said at center court, holding back tears. “We do play basketball in this city. You keep rooting for our team.”
Cavaliers: Coach David Blatt is hoping that F Shawn Marion (left hip strain) will return to the court during a four-game road trip, which begins Tuesday at Dallas. But first, the team will have to see how he responds to on-court drills, which he hasn’t been able to do yet. … Blatt was called for a technical in the second quarter. … Cleveland was outrebounded 38-37.
Hawks: Carroll always wants to be on the other team’s best player, according to coach Mike Budenholzer. “One of the things that makes him great is he brings it every night. So he gets the best player every night. It’s a big part of our defensive identity.” … As usual when James is in town, there were plenty of celebrities courtside, including rapper Ludacris and actor Chris Tucker. … After getting blown out by the Cavs in their first meeting, the Hawks won the last three to take the season series. … The Hawks made 17 of 24 shots in the opening quarter.
Cavaliers: return home to face Phoenix on Saturday to complete a stretch of four games in five nights.
Hawks: travel to Philadelphia on Saturday to take on the 76ers.
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