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Atlanta Hawks Fail Test: Fourth Quarter Meltdowns, LeBron's 48-Point Birthday

John Boller@jboll0327Correspondent IDecember 31, 2009

ATLANTA - DECEMBER 29:  Josh Smith #5 of the Atlanta Hawks shoots against Anderson Varejao #17 of the Cleveland Cavaliers at Philips Arena on December 29, 2009 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks are 21-10 and just as easily could’ve, would’ve, and should be 23-8.

But a dreadful fourth quarter, a miscue with the shot clock, a lucky three-pointer by Anderson Varejao, and a 48-point performance by LeBron James on his birthday caused the Hawks to drop back-to-back games to the Cleveland Cavaliers to end 2009.

Joe Johnson did everything he could to help the Hawks steal one in Cleveland and spoil the birthday boy’s night with 35 points on 15-of-25 shooting.

However, it wasn’t in the cards for the Hawks. The back-to-back losses to the Cavaliers also make the Hawks losers in four of their last six games.

Had the Hawks been able to beat Cleveland twice, they would be in a three-way tie with the Boston Celtics and Cavaliers for second place in the Eastern Conference.

Instead, they are two games behind the Magic and Celtics.

Luckily for Atlanta, the Eastern Conference is not nearly as competitive as the Western Conference, and they have a comfortable three-and-a-half game lead over the Miami Heat for the fourth spot.

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The Hawks failure began with a terrible fourth quarter in the first of the back-to-back games on Tuesday night in Atlanta.

It took the Hawks almost nine minutes to score in the final period. The Hawks started the period down 75-74 and were down 85-74 before Josh Smith ended the scoreless drought with 3:12 left in the game.

Jamal Crawford had a game-high 26 points and knocked down four three-pointers. He had 17 points in the first half. Joe Johnson got off to a fast start, but cooled off and finished 5-of-14 from the field with only 15 points.

Despite the poor fourth quarter performance on Tuesday, the Hawks came out aggressive last night and led for most of the game. In fact, they led until James scored his 45th point of the night on a layup with 4:32 left in the fourth quarter. James’ layup gave the Cavaliers a 94-93 lead.

It would be another fourth quarter to forget for the Atlanta Hawks in the second of the back-to-back games.

After James gave his team their first lead of the game, the Hawks and Cavaliers went back and forth for a couple of possessions, but then, the unlucky breaks came.

With a 1:54 left in the game and the Hawks leading 99-98, Al Horford rebounded a Mo Williams miss and the Hawks had a chance to go up by three. When Williams missed his shot, it never hit the rim. But the shot clock did not automatically reset and the scorer's table did not do their job.

The Hawks only had 15 seconds to get the ball up the court and get a shot off. By the time they got the ball past half court, there was only 8 seconds left on the shot clock.

Atlanta was rushed; Smith got hurried and was stripped by James. The Cavaliers came down, Williams missed a three, but Varejao got the rebound and put it back up for two points. Cleveland was back on top 100-99 and would not give up the lead.

Varejao would put the nail in the coffin with 17 seconds left by hitting the first three-pointer of his career. At first, it looked he had his foot on the line, but after looking at the replay, Varejao did have both feet behind the line.

The Hawks can complain about the shot clock malfunction all they want, or argue that Varejao had his foot on the line. Bottom line: They gave up a chance to win both games in the fourth quarter.

They were outscored 20-10 on Tuesday and outscored 29-16 last night. Heck, they had a 17-point lead last night and still could not find a way to get the win. After holding James to just 14 points in the first game, they let the King get a season-high 48 points last night.

A huge discrepancy in last night’s game was the free throws. The Cavaliers were 28-of-38 from the foul line and the Hawks had just 15 attempts. They did make 14 of them, but sent Cleveland to the line way too many times.

The Hawks began the season as one of the top teams in the NBA and looked better than the “Big Three” in the East. They are now fourth place in the East, but are still behind the “Big Three”.

The Hawks are back in action tomorrow night and start the New Year at home against the New York Knicks.

The best thing the Hawks can do is move on from this debacle, put it behind them, and stay focused. There is still a lot of season left and a lot left to play for.

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