Facing a double-digit deficit under the weight of a raucous road environment, and with the starting center Clint Capela sidelined by a knee injury, the Atlanta Hawks entered halftime of Friday’s play-in game against grim odds.
By then, Hawks head coach Nate McMillan preached “believe” to his players, but McMillan believed most that his team’s past postseason success — in reaching last season’s Eastern Conference finals — would help carry them through against a tough Cleveland Cavaliers team.
“This team is built for moments like this,” McMillan said.
But, more than anything, McMillan knew that Hawks’ All-Star point guard Trae Young was especially built for such moments, and it was Young who delivered most, scoring a game-high 38 points, including a scintillating 32 in the second half, to help seal a 107-101 win.
Behind Young’s huge night, the Hawks advance to face the Miami Heat, the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded team, in a first-round playoff series that begins Sunday in Miami.
“Trae has a great deal of confidence in his game, his ability and he continued to believe,” McMillan said. “I didn’t see any panic in his play. He came out in the second half [and] remained aggressive. Those shots started to fall, the same shots that he was taking the first half, they started to fall in the second half.”
Young shot 4-of-11 from 3-point range and drilled several back-breaking shots that helped the Hawks hold their lead late. He added nine assists for good measure.
“Early in the game, they were making some reads and making some switches, and I was trying to get my teammates involved,” Young said. “I missed a couple shots, but I needed to stay aggressive, and that’s all I did in the second half.”
The Hawks took their first lead late in the third quarter on a 3-pointer from Young, who scored 16 in each of the third and fourth quarters and didn’t record a turnover in the second half. His heroics helped the team overcome a 14-point second-half deficit.
“He made shots from the jump circle,” said Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff.
Young scored or assisted on 43 of 56 second-half points for the Hawks, accounting for more points than the Cavaliers had in the second half (40), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“We just took care of business,” Young said. “The team we beat tonight definitely deserved a playoff spot, but this year it’s so tough. They weren’t able to make it. It’s just a testament to our team that we kept fighting.”
The Cavaliers jumped out to a double-digit lead in a 38-point first quarter behind hot 3-point shooting from Lauri Markkanen, who scored 17 first-half points and sank 5 of 8 from 3-point range before intermission. Markkanen led the Cavaliers with 26 points, and Darius Garland added 21 for a team loaded with promising, young talent.
“This was the most fun I’ve had since I’ve been in the NBA,” Bickerstaff said after the game. “This was the most special group of guys that I’ve ever been around collectively. I’ve not been around a group of guys that care so much about each other and care more about the group than any individual accolades or accomplishments. Everything they did the entire year was for the greater good of the team. It is special to be apart of, and I’m thankful and appreciative.”
Cavaliers All-Star center Jarrett Allen returned to the starting lineup after missing 19 games with a broken left finger. Allen hadn’t 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 against Capela’s knee. Capela had to be helped off the court with what the Hawks later called a hyperextended right knee. His availability against the Heat is unclear, and McMillan said he didn’t have any update.
“I think everyone just contributed a little bit more when he went out,” Young said, a mild understatement given his second half.
As for facing Miami, Young said, “I mean, they’ve been clicking on all cylinders, especially here recently, so they’ve got a little bit more rest than we have so we got to be ready to bring it. We know the crowd is going to be crazy and the environment is gonna be fun so he’s got to be ready to be locked in and take care of business.”