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Top seed Hawks wilt under pressure of the moment

LeBron, Cavs expose flaws of 60-win Atlanta team at its home

POSTED: May 23, 2015 1:17 AM ET

By Sekou Smith

BY Sekou Smith

NBA.com

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Hawks center Al Horford (center) sits dejected as the Cavaliers take two games on their home court in the Eastern Conference finals.

— Somewhere between the end of a glorious regular season and the beginning of the end of a franchise-altering postseason run, reality interrupted things for the Atlanta Hawks.

The majesty of accomplishing the unthinkable, elevating a franchise and a city to unprecedented heights, slammed head on into the cold, hard truth that this moment was clearly too big for this team.

The No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff chase, the four All-Stars, the franchise-record 60-win season and the pomp and circumstance that comes with all of that couldn't insulate the Hawks from the truth. LeBron James and the used-to-be Big 3 Cleveland Cavaliers shredded all of that in eight quarters of basketball on the Hawks' home floor.

The Cavaliers head home for Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference finals in complete control, leading 2-0 after Friday night's 94-82 dismantling of the Hawks. The No. 2 seed Cavaliers are the bigger, stronger and better team right now. The Hawks' 3-1 regular-season mark against the Cavaliers obviously means nothing now.

You don't get to this stage of the season, the cusp of playing for it all, and crumble the way the Hawks did (they trailed by as many as 20 points Friday night and it felt like twice that much) on their home floor and have anyone take you serious as a contender.

Your pace and space offense has ground to a halt. Your elite defense cannot hold up against the onslaught that LeBron brings as a scorer, facilitator and all-around force of nature. The warts that emerged late in the regular season and in the first two rounds of the playoffs are coming back to haunt these Hawks.

"It's happened to us this season," Al Horford said. "It hasn't been perfect for us. For the most part, we've been good. Now, really, our backs are against the wall going on the road."

Fumbling away back-to-back home games in the conference finals is bad enough. Doing it against a Cavaliers team that didn't have Kyrie Irving (he missed Game 2 with knee tendinitis) and Kevin Love (he's out for the postseason after shoulder surgery) makes it an even a tougher pill for the Hawks to swallow.

What also can be disheartening: No LeBron James team has lost a playoff series after leading 2-0 in 14 attempts. The Hawks have never won a series when trailing 0-2 in 16 attempts.

Just when the stars seem to be aligned in their favor, it all comes tumbling down.

"I think their group is playing well regardless of who is on the court," Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "I think all that matters is the guys that are playing. They've played well in two games and we haven't been at our best. So I think it's important to give them credit and important for us to figure out a way to play better going into Game 3, regardless of who is playing and who isn't playing, who did what during the regular season, who didn't do things."

The Hawks couldn't even draft off of the temporary emotional boost that was DeMarre Carroll showing up in the starting lineup two days after a sprained knee suffered late in Game 1, when the injury appeared it could have ended his season. But with no structural damage, he was able to play a team-high 34 minutes, though he was a shell of the player who had led the Hawks throughout this postseason. Six points and three rebounds was all he could manage.

Losing Kyle Korver to a sprained ankle with just under five minutes to play in the third quarter and watching Al Horford limp off the floor minutes later after bumping knees with Cleveland swingman Iman Shumpert showed just how fragile things can be in the postseason.

Korver did not return. Horford did but it didn't matter. The damage had already been done. Fellow All-Stars Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague were already out of the mix, having struggled all night against a fleet of Cleveland role players who continue to play above and beyond their stations, at the behest of James, of course.

The Hawks' starters, the unit that has carried this team all season, suddenly don't seem up to the task of clearing one final hurdle.

The unselfishness and effortless flow that has been their hallmark has disintegrated the past two games into an isolation offense that hasn't been a part of the blueprint for success this season.

"Sometimes we get down and everybody tries to take over one-on-one," Carroll said. "But at the end of the day we know we're not moving the ball like we should. We know we didn't play a great game. We know we didn't play a team game. We're down 0-2. It's not the end of the world. We still feel confident. We still feel we can go to Cleveland and win. We did in the regular season."

That's the problem. The regular season has no bearing on what the Hawks are dealing with now.

This isn't the same Cavaliers team they faced then. This group has stepped up in the spotlight that is the conference finals.

And this certainly is not the same Hawks team either, the one that enjoyed the perfect month in January and reeled off 19 straight wins.

This group is busy melting down under the intense glare that comes with the conference finals.

Sekou Smith is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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