Facing a double-digit deficit under the weight of a noisy road environment and with starting center Clint Capela sidelined with a knee injury, the Atlanta Hawks entered Friday’s playoff halftime against all odds. .
By then, Hawks head coach Nate McMillan had been preaching “believe” to his players, but McMillan mostly believed that his team’s past playoff success — reaching the Conference Finals ‘Is last season – would help them face a tough Cleveland Cavaliers team.
“This team is built for times like this,” McMillan said.
But, more than anything, McMillan knew Hawks All-Star point guard Trae Young was built especially for such moments, and it was Young who delivered the most, scoring a game-high 38 points, including a scintillating 32 in the second half, to help seal a 107-101 victory.
Behind Young’s huge night, the Hawks advance to face the Miami Heat, the top-ranked team in the Eastern Conference, in a first-round playoff series that begins Sunday in Miami.
“Trae has great confidence in his game, his abilities and he continued to believe in it,” McMillan said. “I didn’t see any panic in his game. He came off in the second half [and] remained aggressive. Those shots started to fall, the same shots he was taking in the first half, they started to fall in the second half.”
Young shot 4 of 11 from 3-point range and drilled several grueling shots that helped the Hawks hold their lead late. He added nine assists for good measure.
“At the start of the game, they were doing reads and changes, and I was trying to get my teammates involved,” Young said. “I missed a few shots, but I had 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 points in each of the third and fourth quarters and didn’t register a second-half turnover. His heroism helped the team overcome a 14-point second-half deficit.
“He made shots from the jump circle,” Cavaliers head coach JB Bickerstaff said.
Young scored or assisted on 43 of the Hawks’ 56 second-half points, which is 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 been so tough. They couldn’t make it. It’s just a testament to our team that we kept going. to fight.”
The Cavaliers took a double-digit lead in a 38-point first quarter behind 3-point shooting from Lauri Markkanen, who scored 17 points in the first half 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.
“It was the most fun I’ve had since I’ve been in the NBA,” Bickerstaff said after the game. “It was the most special group of guys I’ve ever been around collectively. I’ve never been around a group of guys who care about each other so much and care more about the group than individual accolades or accomplishments. “Everything they did all year was for the greater good of the team. It’s special to be apart, and I’m thankful and grateful.”
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 field with what the Hawks later called a hyperextended right knee. His availability against the Heat is unclear and McMillan said he has no updates.
“I think everyone just contributed a little bit more when he came out,” Young said, a slight understatement considering his second half.
As for facing Miami, Young said: “I mean, they’ve been on all cylinders, especially here recently, so they’ve got a bit more rest than us, so we have to be ready to bring it. We know the crowd is going to be crazy and the environment is going to be fun so he has to be ready to be locked up and mind his own business.”