Trae Young waved goodbye to Cleveland.
Young scored 32 of his 38 points in the second half, leading the Hawks to a 107-101 comeback victory over the Cavaliers in a winner-take-all play-in game Friday. Atlanta advances to face the top-seeded Heat in the playoffs, Game 1 Sunday in Miami.
During the Hawks’ run to the Eastern Conference finals last year, Young repeatedly tormented opponents, especially on the road. Cleveland took its medicine tonight – a disappointing and awkward end to what had been a surprisingly strong season.
Widely picked finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the Cavs (44-38) had their best LeBron James-less season – by far – in 24 years. Youngsters Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen became All-Stars. Evan Mobley could win Rookie of the Year.
But for a team that was third in the East at the All-Star break, missing the playoffs entirely is a letdown. The Cavaliers still finished eighth in the regular season, which would’ve earned them a playoff berth before the new play-in tournament. But a loss to the Nets and now loss to the ninth-place Hawks ends Cleveland’s season short of the playoffs. It’s difficult to process with such little precedent.
The head spin includes blowing a 14-point lead, falling behind by nine in the fourth quarter, getting within one then ultimately faltering tonight.
The Cavs relentlessly attacked Young defensively early, jumping to a sizable lead. For a while, it seemed Young would get the comeuppance his detractors long for him to receive. Young is an awful defender, and the Knicks and 76ers didn’t do well enough to exploit that in last year’s playoffs.
But he’s SO productive offensively. He got into a groove hitting deep 3s. Then, as the Cavaliers began awaiting those bombs, he caught them off guard with drives to the rim.
Before Young got cooking, Atlanta tightened its defense when Young sat. Bogdan Bogdanovic (who finished with 19 points on 6-of-8 shooting) keyed the offense during that stretch. It was a notable turning point after Lauri Markkanen (who finished with 26 points on 6-of-12 3-point shooting) was hitting nearly everything early.
Yet, the Hawks faced another challenge that could remain against the Heat. Clint Capela left the game with a knee injury late in the first half. He yanked down Mobley from the shoulders, somehow avoiding a technical foul, but stood idly as Mobley fell back into his legs.
A silver lining for the Cavs: They will keep their 2022 first-round pick. That could be a nice tool for upgrading around Garland, Mobley and Allen. Though they’ll now owe the Pacers a lottery-protected 2023 first-rounder, the Cavaliers could surge ahead again and convey a pick well into the 20s next year.
Coming off a conference finals appearance, Atlanta expected that type of season this year. But the Hawks can feel good about at least making the playoffs – and have the potential to accomplish even more.