Horford ejected from Cavaliers-Hawks Game 3 for elbowing Dellavedova

Eric Freeman

Already having lost both of their opening home games to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Atlanta Hawks suffered another major blow late in the second quarter of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals at Quicken Loans Arena.

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With 34 seconds remaining in the first half, Hawks All-Star center Al Horford struck Cavs guard Matthew Dellavedova with an elbow after the two tangled and tussled for a rebound. Replays showed that Dellavedova had fallen into Horford's leg, thereby risking injury, and Horford appears to have retaliated for what he perceived as a dirty play.

Dellavedova was handed a technical foul (although not clearly for his fall), but Horford received a flagrant-2 foul, triggering an automatic ejection. Take a look at the incident here:

The NBA explained the call on Twitter:

The referees' decision was immediately controversial, primarily due to Dellavedova's growing reputation as a pest and instigator. In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, he trapped the leg of Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson, which caused the big man to kick at him as he attempted to get up, which in turn got referees to eject Gibson. More important to the context of the Horford incident, Dellavedova seemingly inadvertently rolled into Hawks wing Kyle Korver in Game 2, causing a high ankle sprain that will keep Korver out of the rest of the postseason.

There's not a ton of evidence that Dellavedova is intentionally doing these things, but he certainly doesn't seem to be a player who consciously avoids putting others in danger.

On the other hand, it's difficult to explain away loading up and elbowing an opponent. If Dellavedova is a pest, then Horford allowed him to be successful with this move. Officials have been fairly consistent in ejecting players for non-basketball actions like this one, so the ejection cannot come as much of a surprise even if there appears to be some reason behind what Horford did. It's more difficult to explain why Dellavedova was given a technical foul without further punishment because he would not seem to deserve any punishment if he didn't fall into Horford on purpose.

Regardless of the justness of the resolution, Horford's ejection put the Hawks in serious jeopardy of falling behind 3-0 in the series. Up 49-48 at halftime, Atlanta had to move forward without its most consistent postseason performer at both ends. Horford is essential to the Hawks' system and had a first-half high 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting.

However, Atlanta exceeded expectations and had a chance to win on the final possession of regulation when Jeff Teague missed a buzzer-beating three-pointer to send the game to overtime. The Hawks led late but succumbed to five points by LeBron James in the final minute as the Cavs won 114-111. They now have the chance to eliminate the Hawks in Tuesday's Game 4 in Cleveland.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!