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CLEVELAND (AP) – As the jaw-dropping loss began to sink in, LeBron James sat on the floor away from his teammates, alone in his thoughts.
The playoffs are just days away, and the NBA champions are lost again.
Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 15 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter as the Atlanta Hawks, despite resting center Dwight Howard and sitting three other key starters, stunned James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 114-100 on Friday night.
Coming off a win over Boston on Thursday night, the Hawks outworked and outgunned the Cavs, who blew a chance to move closer to securing the top seed in the Eastern Conference with the kind of flat, uninspired performance that has become the norm in a disjointed season.
“The energy level was just real bad,’’ a disillusioned James said afterward. “I don’t know why.’’
James struggled to explain what went wrong just two days after the Cavs had played one of their best games this season, blowing the Celtics out in Boston. That win seemed to signal a change, an acknowledgment that the postseason was quickly approaching and it was time to get serious.
And now, this.
“You expect for us to want to get better and we were doing that and we took a couple steps back tonight,’’ James said.
Mike Dunleavy added 20 for Atlanta and the veteran got a little revenge against the Cavs, who tossed him in as part of a trade for Kyle Korver in February. The Hawks recorded 39 assists and moved a game ahead of Milwaukee for fifth place in the East.
However, the Hawks, who also sat Paul Millsap, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder, weren’t celebrating. They host the Cavs on Sunday.
“It doesn’t mean anything,’’ Hardaway said. “We’ve got to see them again. We know they’re a great basketball team and they’re the defending champs. We’ve got to come back on Sunday with the same intensity and the same mindset because they’re going to come after it.’’
It was a shocking letdown by the Cavs, who have dealt with injuries all season, but don’t have any excuse for not giving it their all with so much at stake.