LeBron James sends Hawks and Al Horford into a pivotal offseason

ATLANTA –- LeBron James had just missed a 3-pointer — something that felt like a rarity in this series — and the Atlanta Hawks’ fading heartbeat still had a pulse.

With about 10 seconds left, trailing by a point, Dennis Schroder brought the ball up court as Cleveland defenders scrambled around to get set on defense.

Schroder waited a few seconds before driving to the basket. But when he ran into a wall of Cavaliers in a hectic paint area and stopped, Schroder looked to pass the ball out. James came in, slammed his hand on the ball and a jump ball was called with 2.8 seconds left.

Yet again, James stood in the Hawks’ way and had a hand in sending Atlanta home for the summer.

With a chance to beat LeBron in a playoff game, the Hawks never got a shot off in the waning seconds and were swept by the Cavaliers for the second straight postseason. With their 100-99 Game 4 loss at Philips Arena, the Hawks dropped to 0-12 in playoff games against James.

Considering that Atlanta came into this series thinking it was a better team than the one James nearly averaged a triple-double against last year, this latest sweep makes it feel as if the Cavaliers are light years ahead of Atlanta now.

Despite winning a total of 108 games in the past two regular seasons, the Hawks are still nowhere near the level of James and his Cavaliers. And now the Hawks find themselves entering a pivotal offseason with some critical decisions to make.

Al Horford, a four-time All-Star, will be a free agent this summer. He turns 30 in June and could very well command a maximum contract with a number of suitors who might covet a big man who can shoot.

Even with the rising salary cap, do the Hawks offer Horford a five-year maximum contract, knowing that fifth year could be a hard number to swallow? Horford was far from the problem against Cleveland, which buried the Hawks under an avalanche of 3-pointers.

But the 6-foot-10 center grabbed a total of 14 rebounds in the four-game series. In fact, Atlanta’s starting front court was outrebounded by James, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson by a total of 74-32 in Games 3 and 4 at home, when the Hawks had chances to beat the Cavaliers.

“Probably size, I’m guessing,” Jeff Teague said when asked what the Hawks will need to add in the offseason. “Some more scoring? I don’t know.”

It was clear the Hawks could use a tall shot-blocker in the paint. With the Hawks trying to keep James and Kyrie Irving from penetrating, the Atlanta defenders were often caught helping in the paint and leaving Cavaliers shooters wide open or rotating over too late.

One Cavalier noted the difference between Atlanta and Cleveland’s first-round opponent, Detroit, was that the Pistons had Andre Drummond inside to alter shots. Detroit also had physical and strong wing defenders to throw at the Cavs.

Cleveland shot the lights out in this series against Atlanta; the Cavs knew how to exploit the Hawks by making a staggering 77 3-pointers in four games.

So what can the Hawks do to become better? Obviously they could use a star player who can close out games. Outside of Game 2, when the Cavaliers drowned the Hawks with a record-setting tidal wave of 25 3-pointers, the Hawks led at some point in the fourth quarter of every other game in the series.

But they couldn’t score when they needed to the most. Of course, every team wants star players and closers. And, as Teague noted, how would a star player fit in the Hawks’ system?

“It is difficult to say, because the way we play, a great player has to fit in,” Teague said when asked if Atlanta is one great player away from advancing past James. “A lot of great players play with the ball and have iso situations and things like that, and that is just not how (or) the way we play basketball.”

Still, even if Atlanta doesn’t land a premier free agent this summer, it doesn’t mean the Hawks should blow up everything either.

Considering they opted not to deal Horford, who was the subject of several trade rumors at the deadline, the Hawks could very well pay up to keep the big man they drafted third in the 2007 draft.

Kent Bazemore, the energetic two-way wing, will also be a free agent and is due a significant raise after becoming a full-time starter for the first time this season. After letting DeMarre Carroll sign with Toronto last offseason, the Hawks should pay to keep Bazemore — who will turn 27 this summer and averaged 11.6 points and 5.1 rebounds this season — within reason.

If the Hawks keep both Horford and Bazemore, Atlanta might not have much more cap space to make any other significant additions. With several players’ contracts set to expire after next season, perhaps the Hawks’ brain trust –- which has made sound decisions — keeps this core together for one more run.

Atlanta could also make a trade to try to upgrade the team. Teague, an All-Star point guard from a year ago, was also the subject of trade rumors at the deadline before the Hawks opted to stand pat.

Teague didn’t play in the fourth quarter of Game 4, as the Hawks went with Schroder. The 22-year-old guard had some moments in this postseason, such as his 27-point outing in Game 1 in Cleveland and his 21 points in Game 4, 13 coming in the fourth.

Teague, who will turn 28 this summer, has one year left on his contract at an appetizing $ 8 million. Certainly, there are plenty of teams that can use a point guard. Brooklyn is one point guard-needy team and its new coach happens to be Hawks’ assistant Kenny Atkinson, who helped develop Teague and struck a close relationship with the point guard.

Hawks players believe management doesn’t need to make a ton of moves and that Mike Budenholzer’s spread-the-wealth system can win the East.

“I believe it in my heart,” Horford said. “I believe that the way that we play makes us successful, and we have to figure out how we can take that next step as a group.”

James keeps blocking the Hawks from taking that next step.

The Hawks shouldn’t make massive, sweeping changes this offseason. But they have to do something to figure out the LeBron hex.

“If they keep everybody here, I think that we will continue to grow with each other,” said Paul Millsap, who scored 15 points in the first quarter but finished with only 19. “We will get better. We will get to the next level.”

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