Cleveland Cavaliers (32-45) at Atlanta Hawks (32-42)
Venue: Philips Arena, Atlanta.
TV: 7:30 p.m., FOX Sports Ohio (Cavaliers Live pregame starts at 7 p.m.)
CLEVELAND: C Spencer Hawes; PF Tristan Thompson; SF Luol Deng; SG Dion Waiters; PG Kyrie Irving.
ATLANTA: C Pero Antic; PF Paul Millsap; SF DeMarre Carroll; SG Kyle Korver; PG Jeff Teague.
— Oh, nothing much to see here. Just the Cavaliers’ most meaningful game in four years. Seriously. I’m not one for hyperbole, but they don’t get much bigger than this. At least, they don’t if you’re talking about the Kyrie Irving era (which, of course, also features the likes of Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson). The Cavs have somehow managed to put themselves right in the thick of the playoff race. Everything they’ve been through this season mostly comes down to tonight. So, no biggie, huh?
— Let’s put it this way: It’s not the end of the world if the Cavs lose. It’s just highly likely the end of their season. Or more specifically, the of their playoff dreams.
— I know, I know. With eight games left, I wrote that the Cavs needed to win seven to qualify for the playoffs. They’re 2-0 since. So that would mean they need to go 5-1. So that would mean they could lose Friday. (That is, if you’re actually basing things on my theories, which I admit, can be fairly dangerous.)
— But before we go any further, let’s set the scene: The Cavs trail the Hawks (and Knicks) by two games for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. Both the Hawks and Knicks own the tiebreakers vs. the Cavs.
— So if the Cavs lose Friday, they’ll trail the Hawks (and possibly the Knicks) by three games with five to go. That wouldn’t eliminate the Cavs mathematically, but it might emotionally. And realistically.
— The Knicks, by the way, host the Wizards on Friday. They’re at the Heat on Sunday. They don’t have an easy road by any stretch.
— Bottom line: You don’t want to be three back with five to play, especially given the tiebreaker scenario. Most people, including perhaps the Cavs themselves, would stop believing. The idea of making the playoffs already seems like a stretch for a lot of Cavs fans. Losing here â¦ well, most fans don’t even want to think about it.
— Now for a dose of optimism. If the Cavs win, they’ll trail the Hawks by just one game. They’ll still need some help, but it sure will be a blast watching things play out. As Irving indicated after Wednesday’s blowout win over the Magic, playing meaningful basketball in April is a great experience for those who follow and are involved with team.
— That says a lot. After some of the drama and flat-out bad basketball earlier this season, it is truly amazing the Cavs are immersed in critical games with less than two weeks left. It’s practically a basketball miracle. But the Cavs are right there, and everyone from Mike Brown down to the players deserves credit for showing resolve when all seemed lost.
— You want more optimism? OK, how about this: The Cavs have won five of six and the Hawks have lost 21 of 28. So these are two teams that enter the night on two entirely different trails. More than anything, the Cavs really seem to be enjoying themselves. They look more relaxed than at any other time this season. And why not? No one expects the Cavs to make the playoffs. So they have nothing to lose. That’s showing in their demeanor. They’re like a 14-seed in the NCAA tournament that doesn’t know any better, and somehow, just keeps slaying the giants in front of them.
— Granted, the Hawks are hardly giants these days. But they’re not awful, either. They already beat the Cavs twice in two tries. Last time Kyrie was in Atlanta, he scored 0 points. And a lot of the Hawks’ struggles lately came without Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver. Both missed time with injuries. Both are playing Friday.
— Nervous yet? I sure am. But who can blame us? The Cavs haven’t been involved in a game this exciting, this significant, since You Know Who was here. So enjoy it. Get fired up. Break out the Cavs gear. Bite your nails. And have a good time supporting a team that’s suddenly become a really good story.
— Waiters has been fantastic in his nine starts, scoring a team-best 202 points in that span. The man can fill it up, and while we already sort of knew that, there just seems to be something different about his game. He’s forced very little. He’s kept the ball moving. And yet he’s still getting plenty of looks. All of that and more are encouraging signs.
— Irving also returned Wednesday after missing eight games with a biceps injury. While the Cavs did OK in his absence (4-4), they’re just so much more potent when he’s on the floor. I know. I’m stating the obvious. But it’s more than the 20-plus points Kyrie is capable of putting up. His presence particularly seems to spark big men Thompson and Spencer Hawes.
— Having veterans like Luol Deng and Jarrett Jack sure doesn’t hurt, either. You can tell both have been in these types of situations before. That’s why it’s so important for young players such as Irving, Waiters and Thompson to experience them now. It will make all involved that much better next time around.
— Also, Brown said Thursday that Anderson Varejao (shoulder) is expected to join the team, and that there’s even a chance Varejao could play. That would be big. And yes, I’m stating the obvious again.
— So here we go. The Cavs have every reason to win on April 4. It’s been some time since we said that, huh? And hey, ain’t it great? And win or lose Friday, the Cavs get to do it all over again Saturday, when they return home to face the Bobcats. Read: If you wanted a huge weekend for this franchise, here it is.