Faced with a double-digit deficit under the weight of a rough road environment and with starting center Clint Capela sidelined with a knee injury, the Atlanta Hawks went into halftime of Friday’s play-in game against dismal odds.
Up until then, Hawks head coach Nate McMillan was preaching to his players to “believe,” but what McMillan believed most was that his team’s past postseason success — reaching last season’s Eastern Conference Finals — would help them defend against a strong team in the enforce Cleveland Cavaliers.
“This team is built for moments like this,” said McMillan.
But McMillan knew more than anything that the Hawks’ all-star point guard, Trae Young, was built specifically for moments like this, and it was Young who delivered the most, posting a game-high 38 points, including a scintillating 32 in the second half. to seal a 107-101 victory.
Behind Young’s big night, the Hawks take on the Miami Heat, the top-ranked team in the Eastern Conference, in a first-round playoff series that begins Sunday in Miami.
“Trae has a lot of faith in his game, his ability and he kept believing in it,” McMillan said. “Trae has great faith in his game, his ability and he has kept believing in it. I didn’t see any panic in his game. He came out in the second half [and] stayed aggressive. Those shots started coming, the same shots he took in the first half, they started coming in the second half.”
Young shot 4 of 11 from 3-point range and drilled several game-changing shots that helped the Hawks hold their lead late. He added nine assists for good measure.
“They did some reads and switches early in the game and I tried to get my teammates involved,” Young said. “I missed a couple of shots but I had to stay aggressive and that’s all I did in the second half.”
The Hawks took the lead late in the third quarter with a 3-pointer from Young, who scored 16 points in each of the third and fourth quarters and had no turnover in the second half. His heroics helped the team close a 14-point deficit in the second half.
“He shot out of the circle,” said Cavaliers head coach JB Bickerstaff.
Young scored or assisted 43 of 56 second-half points for the Hawks and scored more second-half points than the Cavaliers (40), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“We were just minding business,” Young said. “The team we’re beating tonight definitely deserves a place in the playoffs, but this year is so tough. You didn’t make it. It’s just a testament to our team that we kept fighting.”
The Cavaliers took a double-digit lead with 38 points in a first quarter, behind hot 3-point shooting from Lauri Markkanen, who scored 17 points in the first half and sank 5-of-8 from 3-point range before the break. Markkanen led the Cavaliers with 26 points and Darius Garland added 21 for a team filled with promising young talent.
“It was the most fun I’ve had since I’ve been in the NBA,” Cavaliers head coach JB Bickerstaff said after the game. “This was the most special group of guys I’ve ever been with. I’ve never been with a group of guys who care about each other so much and care more about the group than individual awards or achievements. Everything they’ve done all year for the good of the team. It’s special to be apart and I’m grateful and appreciative.”
Cavaliers all-star center Jarrett Allen returned to the starting XI after missing 19 games with a broken left finger. Allen had not played since March 6 but finished with 11 points and three rebounds.
The Hawks lost Capela in the first half when Cavaliers center Evan Mobley fell to Capela’s knee. Capela had to be helped off the field with what the Hawks later described as a hyperextended right knee. His availability against the Heat is unclear and McMillan said he has no update.
“I think everyone just added a little bit more than they put out,” Young said, a slight understatement given his second half.
Referring to Miami, Young said, “I mean, they’ve been clicking all cylinders, especially here lately, so they’ve got a little bit more rest than we have, so we’ve got to be ready to bring it. We know the crowd will be crazy and the environment will be fun, so he must be willing to be locked in and take care of business.