Cleveland (24-8) at Atlanta (21-8)

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  • Game info: 7:00 pm EST Tue Dec 29, 2009
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A perfect four-game stretch against Western Conference opponents has let LeBron James(notes) and the Cleveland Cavaliers serve notice that defense is still their top priority.

The Atlanta Hawks don’t need a reminder.

Suffocating defense keyed the Cavaliers’ playoff sweep of Atlanta last spring, and they’ll look to continue that dominance Tuesday night to win their seventh straight over the Hawks as the teams open a home-and-home series at Philips Arena.

Cleveland (24-8) allowed a league-low 91.4 points per game last season and held opponents to 43.1 percent shooting en route to a 66-16 record.

The Cavaliers have yielded an average of 93.9 points while lowering their opponents’ field-goal percentage (43.0) this season, but they’ve taken their defense up a notch over the past week. Cleveland closed a four-game western road trip with a 102-87 win over the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas, then returned home Sunday with a 108-83 victory over Houston.

The Rockets shot 32.9 percent - the lowest of any Cavaliers opponent this season - after the Lakers were limited to 36.5 percent against them. The four-game win streak started in Phoenix with Cleveland holding the league’s highest-scoring team to 91 points, then the Cavs held Sacramento scoreless in overtime two nights later.

They’ve outscored their past four opponents by an average of 17.7 points while limiting them to 40.4 percent shooting.

“(Defense) is our staple. That’s something I’ve been stressing for the last few weeks,” said James, averaging 29.5 points during the past four wins. “We’ll make our mark with the defensive end, then the offense will take care of itself because we have enough scorers.”

Atlanta (21-8) has seen enough of what the Cavaliers can do defensively. After averaging 94.0 points in losing three of four to Cleveland in the 2008-09 regular season, the Hawks were held to 78.3 points and 38.5 percent shooting in the Eastern Conference semifinals and lost four straight to the Cavs by an average of 18.0 points.

Cleveland has won three in a row at Philips Arena - including two playoff victories - but Atlanta is 12-2 there this season and has won its last four at home by 21.0 points per game.

The Hawks have been far less consistent away from home, but they capped a 2-2 road trip with a 110-98 victory at Indiana on Saturday. Four Hawks scored at least 19 points, led by 25 from Al Horford(notes), who also had 19 rebounds and five blocks.

“I’m not saying we’re an elite team, but we’re a team I know that if we come committed to play, for 48 minutes, we can beat anyone in this league,” coach Mike Woodson said. “We’ve got to go home now and handle our business. We’ve got Cleveland coming in and they’re playing pretty well and this is a good win for us to go back home again.”

Horford, who has averaged just 7.7 points and 8.4 rebounds in 10 games versus Cleveland, was held to 10 points in three playoff games against the Cavaliers while nursing a sprained ankle.

James, meanwhile, averaged 33.8 points during the series, but perhaps Mo Williams(notes) should concern Atlanta nearly as much.

Williams scored at least 20 points in each of Cleveland’s regular-season meetings with Atlanta last season, just as he’s done during the Cavaliers’ four-game winning streak.

Cleveland is 21-3 when Williams scores at least 13 points, and 14-1 when he hits three 3-pointers.

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Tuesday, Dec 29