NBA play-in: Trae Young leads Hawks past Cavaliers for East’s No. 8 playoff seed
When the final horn sounded and Trae Young’s work was done, he slammed the ball off the floor, sending it spinning skyward. He then turned and waved goodbye to the Cleveland fans retreating to the the exits.
Ice Trae stings again.
Young scored 32 of his 38 points in the second half, and the Atlanta Hawks overcame losing center Clint Capela to a knee injury to beat the Cavaliers 107-101 in the play-in tournament Friday night and earn the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 playoff seed.
Young started slowly for a second consecutive game, but the All-Star guard with the chilly nickname for his ability to take over games with one of the NBA’s deadliest shooting strokes heated up when it mattered most.
“He made shots from the jump circle,” Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff marveled.
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Young scored 16 points in third quarter to rally the Hawks from a 10-point halftime deficit and added another 16 in the fourth to finish off the Cavaliers, whose inexperience showed throughout the second half.
Bogdan Bogdanovic added 19 points for Atlanta, which will play the No. 1-seeded Miami Heat in the first round. Game 1 is Sunday in South Florida.
“We took care of business,” Young said. “It’s a testament to our team that we kept fighting and finished the job.”
The Hawks, who made it to the conference finals a year ago, might have to go forward without Capela. The 6-foot-10 center hyperextended his right knee late in the first half, had to be helped from the floor and couldn’t return. He will have an MRI exam in Miami.
Capela’s loss forced all of the Hawks to step up, especially on the boards. But it was Young, making 10 of his last 14 shots, who kept their season alive.
“Trae has a great deal of confidence in his game, his ability, and he continued to believe,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “I didn’t see any panic in his play. He came out in the second half, 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.”
Lauri Markkanen scored 26 points and Darius Garland 21 for the young Cavaliers, whose unexpected season fell just shy of a playoff berth.
Missing leading scorer Paul George (protocols), the Clippers rallied from a big deficit before giving up their own lead and losing 105-101 to New Orleans in a season-ending play-in game.
Cleveland hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2018, and the Cavaliers haven’t been to the postseason without LeBron James on their roster since 1998.
As if to add insult to injury, James tweeted an emoji of an ice cube in the closing seconds — a nod to Young — as the Hawks were ending Cleveland’s turnaround season.
Lifted by a rowdy, towel-waving crowd at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, the Cavaliers were in position to advance and played well in long stretches. However, Cleveland’s offense bogged down in the third quarter and the Cavaliers had no answer defensively for Young.
“The ball wasn’t popping, and there was a lot of isolation and standing still,” Bickerstaff said of his team’s troubles after halftime.
The Cleveland fans who stayed until the end saluted the Cavaliers, who weren’t expected to get this far after winning just 22 games last season. While they have been relegated to lottery picks and losing since James left after a four-year run to the NBA Finals four years ago, the future in Cleveland is bright.
“We’re headed in the right direction, for sure,” Bickerstaff said. “We accomplished a lot this year.”
With the season on the line, Cleveland received a huge emotional and defensive lift by the return of All-Star center Jarrett Allen, who missed the previous 19 games because of a broken finger on his left hand. Allen finished with 11 points.
The Hawks were in big trouble late in the third quarter, when Young finally heated up.
Ignoring some vulgar chants by Cleveland fans, the dazzling guard made a pair of three-pointers and scored Atlanta’s final 12 points in the quarter as the Hawks closed with a 17-8 run over the final 3:48 to tie it at 84 going into to the final 12 minutes.
In the fourth, Young answered every Cleveland run with one of his own, knocking down floaters or getting to the rim for layups, like the Hawks have seem him do so many times before.
“That’s why he gets paid the big bucks,” Hawks forward De’Andre Hunter said.
Danilo Gallinari added 14 points for Atlanta. Forward-center John Collins (finger, foot) and guard Lou Williams (back) both sat out.
Cavaliers forward Kevin Love only played 10 minutes — one in the second half.
Atlanta went 1-3 against Miami during the regular season.
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