CLEVELAND – Many of them NBA big-game beginners, the young Cavaliers took their lumps in Brooklyn the other night and missed their first chance of making the playoffs.
Fortunately, they've got another shot.
Trouble is, Trae Young does, too.
Atlanta's high-scoring All-Star guard will be THE defensive focal point for Cleveland on Friday night as the Cavs host the Hawks in a win-or-start-vacation game. The winner advances to play No. 1 seed Miami in the Eastern Conference's first round.
Young averaged 32.5 points in four games — his high was 41 — against the Cavs this season, and Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff didn't waste a breath in bringing him up when asked about the challenges the Hawks present offensively.
“Obviously, it starts with Trae Young,” he said. “What he does impacts everybody else and his ability to one, make all the shots from all over the floor, two, to make all the plays with the ball in his hand, the passes and then that pick-and-roll game that they run."
Young started slowly but scored 24 points in Atlanta's 132-103 rout of Charlotte on Wednesday night, a game the Cavs watched live and scouted together.
“They played well and they moved the ball well as a team,” Cavs guard Rajon Rondo said. “Trae accepted the double teams that Charlotte threw at him at the start of the game. He got off the ball extremely well, he shared the ball with his teammates and they made plays for each other.”
The Cavs didn't handle Brooklyn's two-headed, Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving monster early in Tuesday night's 115-108 loss, the first taste of playoff-like intensity and physicality for most of Cleveland's players.
The Nets led by 20 points after the first quarter, and although the Cavs fought back and were within six late, the initial onslaught was too much to overcome.
There is no teacher like experience, and Bickerstaff believes his team will grow from the play-in opener.
“We’ve been tested and I feel like our guys have done a really good job of responding,” he said. And when they’ve been in a certain situation, they don’t make the same mistake twice. They come out and they learn from it and they improve on in the next time out."
Atlanta won three of the four matchups this season with Cleveland, blowing the Cavs out 131-107 in the most recent matchup on March 31. But the Cavs were short-handed in every game and could get back All-Star center Jarrett Allen, who has been sidelined since March 6 with a broken finger.
The team officially listed Allen as questionable on the injury report, a positive step after he missed the past 19 games.
Allen in the middle of Cleveland's defense would be another obstacle for Young, who is not only dangerous as a shooter but in finding Clint Capela and Atlanta's other big mans on lobs at the rim.
With 134 games of postseason experience, Rondo gives the Cavs someone who has seen it all this time of year.
He's been a sounding board for teammates and coaches. Bickerstaff called him a basketball “savant” before Rondo got nine assists in 26 productive minutes against the Nets.
A two-time champion, the 36-year-old Rondo struggled to describe his postseason metamorphosis.
“I can’t really put it into words,” he said. “I get a little more time to rest my body. I usually play a lot more minutes. The coaches usually allow me to do what I do best — manipulate the game and try to do what’s best for the team and stay on the same page with my teammates, along with getting W’s.”
Atlanta forward John Collins, who hasn't played since March 11 with a sprained finger and foot, won't play along with guard Lou Williams (back).
Also, guard Bogdan Bogdanovic is questionable with a left ankle sprain.
DRE STEPS UP
Hawks forward De’Andre Hunter scored 22 points in the play-in victory over the Hornets, with 16 coming during a third-quarter barrage that turned the game into a blowout.
The No. 4 overall pick in the 2019 draft, Hunter has battled health issues and struggled to develop into a consistent performer over his three-year NBA career. The Hawks hope his performance was a sign that he’s ready to step up in the postseason.
“He was playing aggressive,” Young said. “That’s what we need from Dre. He was making plays, getting to the basket, and the way he was guarding got Miles (Bridges) frustrated. It was a great all-around game for Dre.”
THE BIG MAN
Cleveland’s advantage in the post -- especially if Allen goes — puts a big responsibility on Capela.
Outside of him, the Hawks don’t really have anyone who can match up with Cleveland’s front line, which can include three 7-footers at once.
“They pose a challenge because of their size,” McMillan said. “They do a good job of taking advantage of their size with their ability to pound you in the paint. They’ve got a of lot of length.”
Capela had a big game against Charlotte with 15 points and 17 rebounds, but the Hornets went went with a small lineup most of the game. That won’t be the case against the Cavaliers, but the Hawks are confident in their man in the middle.
“He was everywhere,” Danilo Gallinari said. “We know he can do that every single night. He’s got our back and can dominate the paint.”
AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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