NEW YORK — The Cleveland Cavaliers’ postseason journey officially begins on Tuesday night.
No. 8 Cleveland (44-38) and the No. 7 seed Brooklyn Nets (44-38) will face off in a play-in game, with the winner advancing to the Eastern Conference Playoff bracket as the No. 7 seed and the loser getting one more crack at the playoffs on Friday, taking on the winner of the 9-10 play-in game between Atlanta and Charlotte.
For the Cavs, a young team who few would have predicted to make it this far after winning just 22 games last year, getting two shots at making playoffs is certainly beneficial.
“Odds work in your favor there,” coach JB Bickerstaff said following the regular season finale on Sunday. “The ability to just win one out of two as opposed to having to win two. The opportunity to get a home game if needed, and if you have this building behind you in a win-or-go-home scenario, I like our chances. So being able to have two shots at it is huge. But again, our focus is on Brooklyn, and we need to go out and get that job done.”
Here’s what to know about the matchup:
When: Tuesday at 7 p.m. EDT.
Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn.
TV/Radio: TNT, WTAM AM-1100.
The line: Nets by 8 1/2.
What’s at stake: The winner moves into the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Boston Celtics. The loser plays at home Friday against the winner of the 9-10 game between Atlanta and Charlotte.
Cavs projected starters: Darius Garland, guard, 21.7 ppg, 3.3. rpg, 8.7 apg; isaac okoroguard, 8.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.8 apg; Caris LeVertguard, 13.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.9 apg; Lauri Markkanenforward, 14.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.7 apg; Evan Mobleycenter, 15.0 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.5 apg.
Net projected starters: Kyrie Irvingguard, 27.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 5.8 apg; Seth Curryguard, 14.9 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.6 apg; Bruce Brownforward, 9.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.1 apg; Kevin Durantforward, 29.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 6.4 apg; Andre Drummondcenter, 11.8 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 1.4 apg.
What to watch: The Cavs and Nets have played four times this season, with the Nets having a 3-1 series advantage, including a 118-107 win over the Cavs last Friday. The Cavs’ lone win against the Nets this year came in January, a 114-107 victory when they had both Mobley and Jarrett Allen in the lineup. Allen continues to work his way back from a fractured left middle finger that caused him to miss the last 18 regular-season games, and there’s been pessimism around him playing in this one.
The Nets, meanwhile, have their star-studded cast available with the exception of Ben Simmons, and will look for big games from Durant and Irving.
Brooklyn runs isolation plays for an average of 11.9 possessions per game — 10.8% of their possessions — the highest mark in the league. They try to create the space necessary for their best players, especially Durant and Irving, to operate offensively.
The Cavs will have to rely on the scrappiness they’ve become known for, especially if they are missing some of their height defensively in Allen. Mobley could be the key as a rim protector on the defensive end, being a safety valve at the rim and allowing the Cavs to create more pressure on the perimeter.
Offensively, the Cavs will definitely need big games from Mobley as well as All-Star Darius Garland. Last time out against the Nets, Garland had 31 points, three assists and two steals.
Chris Fedor’s prediction: Nets 123, Cavs 114.
There’s a reason the Nets are eight-point favorites. Well, two of them: Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Both are battle-tested champions that have shined on the NBA’s biggest stage. In a postseason environment, it’s tough to overlook the Nets’ combination of star power and experience. The Cavs’ projected starting lineup has nine games of postseason experience — total. All coming from LeVert, who is 1-8 in his postseason career. Brooklyn has 284 games spread across the potential starting lineup. That number would increase even more if Goran Dragic steps in for Brown or Curry.
Cleveland will play hard. It will score against Brooklyn’s generous, switch-heavy defense. Just not enough to keep up. The Nets are on a different level and Allen’s absence will be felt. It will be a good learning experience for the young Cavs.
Ashley Bastock’s prediction: Nets 117, Cavs 110.
The Cavs said after Sunday’s regular-season finale that they aren’t intimidated by this basically-full-strength Brooklyn squad, and I like that attitude going into it. But with both Durant and Irving, not having Allen alongside Mobley definitely hurts Cleveland defensively, which we’ve seen throughout the second half of the season as the former missed the final 18 regular-season games — it’s one less rim protector that makes perimeter pressure riskier and midline and boxing out help harder.
As Chris points out, the Nets’ collective playoff experience here gives them an added edge. For this young Cavs squad, it will be most important to soak up — but not be intimidated by — the moment and the stakes. I think they have a good chance of doing that, but may just run out of gas like they did last Friday in that loss to Brooklyn.
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