Neither the Brooklyn Nets nor Cleveland Cavaliers expected to be here.
The Nets were the talent-rich preseason title favorites who expected to be a top seed in the East and have this week off. The young Cavaliers expected to be focused on ping-pong balls at the end of the season, a young squad with some talent but not one where fans anticipated a postseason appearance.
Cleveland will travel to Brooklyn for the 7/8 play-in game in the East tonight (Tuesday). The winner will enter the playoffs as the No. 7 seed and take on the Boston Celtics. The loser moves on to host the second play-in game Friday against the winner of the Hornets at Hawks game.
Here are three things to look for tonight.
Who on the Cavaliers guards Kevin Durant?
When these teams met last Friday night in a game with meaning — which team would host this game was one potential impact — Durant had 36 points on 11-of-20 shooting, and it felt like he could have had more if he wanted it. Durant was killing them from the midrange. The Cavaliers did not have a good matchup for him.
Lauri Markkanen got a chance because he has the size and some good mobility, but he’s not exactly an elite defender, and after that it’s the rookie Evan Mobley or Caris LeVert or other guys not up to the task. Durant running a two-man game with a shooter such as Kyrie Irving or Seth Curry created even larger matchup issues for the Cavaliers.
Durant is one of the five best pure scorers ever to play the game. Nobody has an answer to stop him, but some teams — Miami, Boston — have the personnel to make him work for it. Cleveland doesn’t, and if Durant has another big game the Cavaliers are in dire straights.
How much will the Cavaliers miss Jarrett Allen?
Tied into the Cavaliers’ defensive woes, center Jarrett Allen is out for this game, still not recovered enough from a broken finger to play. The Cavaliers have been without Allen since he was injured on March 6 and have gone 7-11 without him and 3-8 in their last 11 games.
In last Friday night’s game against the Nets, Andre Drummond had 15 points and 12 rebounds without a traditional big man who could slow him down while also protecting the paint.
“He’s obviously the anchor of the defense and the things he can do offensively and help the other guys,” Markkanen told the Associated Press. “And I think it’s obvious that we miss him a lot.”
Cleveland should be able to score, with Darius Garland leading a good offense against an unimpressive Brooklyn defense, but getting enough stops to win against a high-powered Nets offense will be the challenge.
Cavaliers’ youth vs. Nets experience
The core of the Brooklyn Nets — Durant, Irving, Patty Mills — have all got rings and have played in much bigger games than this. They know what playoff basketball is like.
Garland doesn’t. Mobley doesn’t. Markkanen doesn’t (he’s never been in a playoff game). Caris LeVert has played in nine playoff games in his career.
Outside of sixth man Kevin Love — who could see limited minutes because of his defensive shortcomings — this is not a Cavaliers team deep with postseason experience. The Nets have been here and done that, they are looking to be a threat in games bigger than this, but they also understand focusing on the task at hand.
Whatever happens, this game will be a good learning experience for a young Cavaliers team. The pressure of a playoff atmosphere and the attention to detail needed for those games are not something that can be explained in a walk-through. It has to be lived. The Cavaliers are about to get that experience, but from a team that knows how to win in these moments. The Nets surged in the fourth quarter to win last Friday when these teams played, but that surge could come earlier in this one.