The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Atlanta Hawks have taken two vastly different paths this season that have ultimately led them to the same destination: the play-in game for the East’s eighth seed.
This do-or-die game is more of a consolation for Cleveland following the surprisingly successful campaign that they have had. They survived early injuries to Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio, two key pieces in their backcourt rotation, to rise as high as second place in the East standings last February.
The maturation of Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen into NBA All-Stars, together with the impressive rookie year that Evan Mobley has had, have allowed the Cavaliers to exceed the lowly expectations that were cast upon them in the pre-season.
Kevin Love’s revival and evolution into a viable Sixth Man of the Year candidate has also been a major boon for them this year. They were projected to once again be a lottery team and hardly anyone expected them to be entrenched in the battle for postseason positioning.
While their 44-38 record boasts of around 20 more wins than what the consensus total was before this campaign tipped off, it is disappointing when considering that they were very well on pace for a 50-win season just two months ago. The recent injuries to Allen and Mobley, who has since returned, led to a paltry 9-15 record after the All-Star break and caused them to tumble from a guaranteed postseason berth to the play-in.
An injury came about seemingly every time Cleveland found its stride and dulled some of the lust from their breakout season. A loss to the Brooklyn Nets in the first play-in game between the seventh and eighth seeds has put their backs against the wall and the life of their inspiring year is now hanging by a thread.
Allen may finally return from his finger injury for their play-in finale although it remains to be seen how effective the 23-year-old will be given his month-long layoff.
Meanwhile, Atlanta has had quite the opposite year. They were expected to be among the stronger teams in the East in the wake of their inspiring run to the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals, but they were still below .500 as recently as March 17. What stood out all-year long though was their unwavering swagger and penchant for showing up to big games which hinted that they would figure it out sooner or later.
They eventually did and another strong finish to the 82-game calendar, similar to last year, helped them finish 43-39 which was enough to secure ninth place in the East. Trae Young has been brilliant all throughout and led the league in total points and assists during the regular season.
What they have in common with the Cavaliers is that injuries have hit them hard this season. However, they have slowly regained their health and are now close to full strength. Starting forward John Collins remains the only Hawk still sidelined as he continues to recover from a sprained foot and finger.
Atlanta handily disposed of the Charlotte Hornets in the play-in and their reward is this match with Cleveland for the right to engage the Miami Heat in a seven-game first round series.
Recent momentum suggests that the Hawks will have the upper hand and are favored yet it would be foolish to count out Cleveland, despite how they have faltered over these past few weeks.
Atlanta very much needs the win more given what was expected of them prior to this season. Advancing to the first round may help extend the lifespan of this core group by at least another season before talk of a revamp inevitably seeps in, especially if they cannot repeat the highs of 2021.
On the other hand, the Cavaliers will walk away from this season with their heads held high and gazing into the future regardless of the outcome of this play-in game. No member of their core group is older than 23 years old and they have an ideal group of veterans to help guide them into the early days of their basketball prime.
Cleveland’s trajectory is well on the way up, even if their season seems to be heading down, while the Hawks may be finding their groove right in time to salvage their season though their next steps remain uncertain.