The Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers linked up in a true win-or-go-home matchup on Friday night and the tension was absolutely palpable. The Cleveland Cavaliers had an incredible breakout season, doubling their 22 wins (in a 72-game season) from the season prior to 44 wins in a normal length season. However, the Cavs had to rebound after a loss to the Brooklyn Nets that was worse than the 6-point margin indicated in the Eastern Conference 7 versus 8 seed portion of the Play-In Tournament.
The Hawks, on the other hand, easily dispatched the Charlotte Hornets in the 9 versus 10 seed matchup and had to deal with a hostile crowd for the first time in the Play-In Tournament. Atlanta shined away from their home arena in the playoffs last year, winning six out of ten games away at New York, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee.
Both sides were dealing with injury issues in the lead up to the night. John Collins would be ruled out with both lingering hand and foot problems, but Bogdan Bogdanovic was ruled in after being listed as questionable earlier, helping to bolster the Hawks bench. Cleveland received even better news, however, as Jarrett Allen was ruled into his first game since March 6th, having missed 19 games including the Nets game since the injury.
It was quickly clear the dribble penetration, size, and shooting of Cleveland bewildered the Hawks early on, and the home team jumped out to a quick double digit margin But the Hawks would weather a lackadaisical defensive start and hot Cavaliers shooting to mount an epic second half comeback and advance to the NBA Playoffs for the second year in a row, 107-101.
Lauri Markkanen was the early recipient of wide open threes created by Caris LeVert and Darius Garland breaking down the defense. The Hawks had absolutely no answer at first for what to do when their first man was beat.
Here, Trae Young wants to push LeVert left knowing he has Clint Capela rolling from the baseline to help. Instead, LeVert is able to get into the lane to his right, drawing Markkanen’s man De’Andre Hunter and hitting the 7-footer in shooting rhythm.
The Hawks scrambled poorly in unsettled defensive situations from the onset. Off an offensive rebound, Atlanta can’t organize fast enough below to prevent another wide open Markkanen triple.
Below is another instance when the size of the starting lineup created havoc for Atlanta. Evan Mobley is able to draw Kevin Huerter on switch. He uses his positioning and physicality to receive the ball, shade the backside defense toward him, and kick out to an open Markkanen.
“The first half they were attacking our paint,” said head coach Nate McMillan. “Living in our paint. When the ball gets in the paint, it opens up everything: perimeter shooting, offensive rebounding. It’s just tough to get anything going when you’re playing that type of defense. But we tightened up in the second half.”
“First half, we were discombobulated,” concurred Onyeka Okongwu. “They were getting too many open looks.”
Atlanta’s questionable decision making on the offensive end was also allowing the Cavs to break out into easy transition opportunities going the other way. Hunter, here, turns down a wide open corner three for a contested pocket pass which leads to Garland finding an easy two for Markkanen.
The Hawks committed six turnovers in the first quarter but they would have only seven in the last three quarters combined. That rediscovered ball security would go a long way toward preventing easy run out buckets for Cleveland in addition to bolstering their offensive flow.
At the end of the first quarter and into the second quarter, the Hawks bench unit slowed the bleeding with steady play on both ends. Delon Wright flew around on the defensive end and was a big reason for the Hawks eventually holding the trio of Garland, LeVert and Rajon Rondo to 14-for-43 (32.6%) shooting from the field.
The Hawks needed point of attack defense in a big way in this game and all season long, and Wright continued to prove how valuable he is to this team on Friday night with that desired skillset. Below, Wright is credited with a block on the much taller Mobley after first forcing Garland to drive baseline until he’s behind the basket.
“Delon has been doing this all season long,” said McMillan about Wright’s play. “He’s solid defensively. He knows his role. He brings that role to the floor every single night guarding the best one or two. Sometimes threes. He’s just doing a good job playing position defense. Keeping the ball in front of him. Keeping the man in front of him and making those guys shoot over the top. He had the assignment of guarding Garland and LeVert and did a good job of being solid. I thought our bigs did a better job of helping on those pick-and-roll actions. It starts with our guys controlling the ball. Keeping the ball in front.”
“He had a hell of a game,” agreed Young. “Guarding and pressuring Darius [Garland], especially in that second half. He got some key steals late in that second half. He played great for us. Big spark off the bench.”
“Picking them up before they can get into their comfort zone,” said Wright about the defensive keys Friday night. “Flying around the court. Making it tough on them.”
Okongwu acknowledged his closeness with Wright saying, “me and Delon try to bring defense coming off the bench for our team. And that’s what he did. He did a great job playing defense tonight. Me and Delon talk a lot on the court defensively. We want to switch. Get my man, I’ll get his man. We have that great relationship on that court.”
Wright’s bench mate Bogdanovic provided offensive punch to a Hawks team that struggled to shoot from deep in the first half (3/17 or 17.6%). After forcing the turnover, the man they call ‘Bogi’ secures two of Atlanta’s four fast break points in this contest in the following clip.
This was a very crafty Wright screen disguised as him getting to his spot on the floor to free Bogdanovic for a long bomb.
“[Bogdanovic] got us fired up,” said McMillan. “I thought his voice was really good in that first half. It seemed like we were a little down. They came out and jumped on us early. There were knocking down all kinds of threes. The second unit came in and got us back into the game. And that started with [Bogdanovic’s] offense and [Wright’s] defense.
The Hawks lost Capela for the night and possibly longer on this play that may be difficult to watch, as Mobley was carried into Capela’s right leg and causing it to flex inward. Capela would be listed as out with right knee hyperextension for the second half and will receive an MRI in short order. But for the contest at hand, it would be up to backup centers Okongwu and Gorgui Dieng to fill the void.
“When Clint went down, I just told myself ‘Go ahead and win this game for Clint.’”, said Okongwu. “He does so much for us. Has a big impact on the game. He went down. So, as a brotherhood, I just wanted to take care of his duties.”
“[Okongwu] had to step into that starting role, said McMillan. “And the group just came together and we established that defense that we talked about that we needed at the beginning of the game. But we got it in the second half, giving up only 40 points. In the fourth quarter, only 17. And that’s where it needs to start from for us.”
When the buzzer sounded for the halftime break, the Hawks found themselves down by 10 points in a game that felt a lot more one-sided. Atlanta could only generate three takeaways and hemorrhaged 124.5 points per possession on defense — a mark punctuated by a 10-for-21 (47.6%) performance from three from Cleveland.
Ultimately, the Hawks channeled renewed focus and resembled the resilient team from a year ago in the second half. They held Cleveland to just 88.9 points per 100 possessions in that timespan while pouring in 124.4 points per possession offensively.
“We talked about – in the locker room – believe,” said McMillan about the second half turnaround. “We lost Clint [Capela]. We knew that he would be down for the rest of the game. The message was “believe”. I think this team is built for moments like this. They showed last year what they could do in situations like this and once again we do the same thing with a guy down, guys stepping up in that second half.
And who else to lead the Hawks out of a sticky situation than the guy who is motivated by adversity more than anyone else? As the Cleveland crowd began to sense victory and turn toward antagonizing the visitors, Young found his groove.
Young came alive in a big way in the second half, hitting 10-of-14 (71.4%) shots from the field for 32 points. The Hawks as a team connected on only seven shots from the floor in the fourth quarter and Young was responsible for six of those. He finished with 38 points and nine assists in yet another career-defining game.
The Hawks often run this set at the beginning of a half to get a read on how teams will defend Young. Here, he steps back on the larger Allen to begin his second half onslaught.
In this next one, Dieng sets a bruising wall of a screen to allow Young to snake it and get an open layup.
I have no explanation for why the Cavaliers began soft switching pick-and-roll actions with Young as the ball handler. LeVert begins bailing even before the screen is set and Allen has no shot at contesting, and the Hawks reclaimed the lead for the first time all game with this triple.
Although the Hawks had dug themselves out of a 14-point hole, with the score knotted 84-84 heading into the final quarter, they would have to continue to dig in on both ends in a hostile environment.
After a short rest on the bench to open the quarter, Young came back in at just under ten minutes remaining and picked up where he left off. Here, he’s able to attack the defense before they can get set and snake through the pick-and-roll defense for a floater.
The Cavs would continue to soft switch, putting Markkanen on Young after the Hunter screen. Young pulls off a hesitation turn to freeze the entire defense for another floater.
We all saw this next highlight complete with classic Young showmanship. LeVert had to return to the arena the next morning to pick up his ankles after this one.
At this point, Cleveland is in survival mode with Young having caught fire and facing a late deficit. They send two bodies at ‘Ice Trae’, but his quickness in turning the corner is no match for them.
Young would finish the second half having scored or assisted on 43 of 56 second half points for Atlanta, which was more than the Cavaliers had in that half alone (40).
“I think he lives for these moments,” McMillan had to say about his dynamic guard. “Built for this moment. I said it to him last year going into the playoffs. His game, his confidence, his belief in himself, playing in big moments like this, he doesn’t shy away from it. He looks forward to playing in games like this and being on this stage. He’s going to show it. He’s not afraid of failure. And he’s shown that in these big games, starting from the playoffs last year and going into the playoffs this year. These moments, this is what this kid was made for.”
On what was working for him that half, Young responded, “I always try to stay aggressive and read what the defense is doing. Early in the game, they were making some reads and trying to switch and things like that. I was trying to get my teammates involved. I missed a couple of shots but I needed to stay aggressive. And that’s all I did in the second half.”
McMillan mentioned Young’s evolution as to explain his mindset in these situations. “Growth. That’s growth. Where you don’t play a good first half but you stay with it. And that’s confidence. Trae [Young] has a great deal of confidence in his game. His ability. He continued to believe. I didn’t see any panic in his play. He came out in his second half and remained aggressive. Those shots started to fall. The same shots that he was taking in the first half, they started to fall in the second half.”
“They were really prepared,” Bogdanovic explained about Cleveland’s hot start. “One day more in between these games. I feel like we didn’t make live adjustments in the game. The second half we all stepped it up, especially Trae [Young].”
The Hawks barely blinked when the Cavaliers came out scorching hot, and many credited that to the experience and poise of a team largely made up of the same team that went on a deep postseason run a year ago. Bogdanovic spoke to the team in the locker room between halves, and that seemed to have a profound effect on the team.
“I felt like I had been there before in some Euroleague games,” said Bogdanovic. “I had two choices. To sit down and be quiet or to find something, just say something. Sometimes you just have to be loud in an arena like this.”
“He was challenging his teammates from that point on to play, commented McMillan. “We can play better. We have to do better. We have to defend. And I thought that was big.”
“Going into some hostile games and coming out with a W — they learned a lot from that last year,” said Wright about watching the Hawks from afar last year. “We had a lot of adversity this year. Especially during the Covid times. It helped a lot of guys get more minutes and step up into different roles while other guys were out.”
The win moves the Hawks into the official playoff bracket, where they will face off against Southeast Division rivals the Miami Heat in a 1-8 seed matchup. The Hawks will look to become just the sixth team to topple a top seeded team in the current format. But Atlanta will mostly likely have to do so without their two best big men in Collins and Capela to begin the series. Game 1 is on Sunday afternoon.