CLEVELAND — Cleveland came ready for its first postseason home game since June 8, 2018. Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse was ready for the moment.
However, its tenets, the Cleveland Cavaliers, couldn't quite rise to the occasion.
A second half outburst from Hawks guard Trae Young was just too much for the Cavaliers to overcome as Atlanta ended the Cavs' season with a 107-101 victory in the last leg of the Eastern Conference's play-in tournament. Cleveland limited the two-time All-Star to just six points in the first half, but gave up 31 points to him in the second, putting the nail in the coffin of what had been an unexpectedly successful season.
Young would go on to finish with 38 points on 13-of-25 shooting. He stepped up when it mattered most, and the Cavs couldn't.
The Cavaliers got off to a hot start against the Hawks, outscoring them 36-25 in the first quarter, thanks in large part to a blistering-hot opening period from 3-point range. The Wine and Gold knocked down 6 of 9 3-pointers to race out to a lead as large as 14 points.
Early on, the offense was working and the defense was too, thanks in large part to the return of big man Jarrett Allen to the lineup. Allen, who had missed the last 19 games with a finger injury, was the first player onto the floor for the Cavs for pregame warmups and was a big reason why the Cavs kept Atlanta's offense at bay early.
The Hawks would, of course, fight back and make a game of it, quickly cutting into Cleveland's double-digit lead in the second quarter, climbing back to within three points at 46-43 with 4:38 remaining in the first half of play. The Cavs responded with a 7-0 run of their own to push the lead back out to 10 points.
The Cavs still led by 10 points when Atlanta's Clint Capela pulled down Cavs rookie big man Evan Mobley by the shoulders to send him to the line. The play was reviewed to check if it was a flagrant foul before being ruled a common foul. Even though the foul wasn't nearly severe enough to warrant Capela being ejected, it would be his last action of the night. After the whistle, Mobley fell into Capela's knee, forcing him to be helped off the floor with what Atlanta ruled a right knee hyperextension.
In the third quarter, the Hawks would again go on a run to cut into Cleveland's lead, this time eventually taking it down to 77-76 before Cavaliers swingman Caris LeVert immediately answered with a 3-pointer of his own. LeVert and Atlanta's Trae Young would then trade long distance 3-pointers before the teams would ultimately end the third quarter tied at 84 points.
Young scored the final 12 points of the quarter for the Hawks, pushing his total for the game to 22.
To start the fourth, Young was on the bench for the Hawks, but checked back in with just under 10 minutes remaining. When he came back, Garland went to the bench for Cleveland for a quick rest, but was back on the floor less than a minute later. Still, the Cavs were outscored by four with him resting.
The bleeding didn't stop there, as Atlanta would continue to push its lead and end the season for the Cavaliers. That advantage would get as high as nine points in the fourth quarter as Cleveland struggled on both ends, with its first basket not coming until 6:04 remaining in regulation.
The backbreaker for the Cavs may have come with 3:38 remaining as Young nailed a step-back 3-pointer from 35 feet out. That shot put the Hawks back up by six, and though Cleveland would get it down with within one, it couldn't get over the hump.
Up three, the Cavaliers appeared to stop Atlanta defensively with a steal by Lauri Markkanen. However, Markkanen threw the ball right back to the Hawks, and Atlanta would go on to ice the game at the free throw line.
In the second half, the Hawks were able to capitalize on Cleveland's willingness to switch any defender on the floor onto Young. Atlanta repeatedly targeted Markkanen and Young would go to work on him possession after possession down the stretch. It wasn't a wise defensive strategy by the Cavs, and it ultimately cost them a trip to the playoffs.
Markkanen stepped up in a big way offensively to lead the Cavs with 26 points, but his defense is what cost the team.
Atlanta will now move on to take on the top-seeded Miami Heat in the first round of the NBA playoffs beginning Sunday. The Cavaliers will now begin their offseason with their first-round draft pick intact and a number of questions about how to move forward with one of the NBA's brightest young group of players.