After how awesome both of the 7/8 matchups were to kick off the Play In Tournament, we had a little bit of a regression in the 9/10 games last night. That's to be expected to some degree, but what we do have is a pretty damn exciting second stage to this tournament. There are teams still alive that could pull some shenanigans in the first round, especially in the East. So just like we did with the first stage, it's time to get you ready and fill you in with everything you need to know before tomorrow's games. Considering both 7 seeds won their game and both 9 seeds won theirs, we're left with some pretty interesting matchups. Some contrasting styles, some pretty legit rosters mixed with legit playoff experience, star power, you name it we have it as we try and figure out who will actually make the "real" postseason.
I talked yesterday about what a slam dunk this tournament has been, and I have every reason to believe that will continue tomorrow night now that everyone is facing the same single elimination. If you were an 8 seed, you screwed around and dropped your first game. Not the end of the world, but you no longer have the luxury of screwing around. If you're a 9 seed, you've been in playoff mode for weeks now so that pressure shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone on those rosters.
With that said, let's dive in.
Atlanta Hawks (9) vs Cleveland Cavaliers (8)
Head to Head: ATL won 3-1
To get us started in the East, we have two teams that sort of feel like they are trending in opposite directions. The Cavs have been hit with the injury bug in the worst way and as a result have seen their season sort of crater. Remember, this was a top 4 seeded team for a long stretch of the regular season, but then the injuries showed up and everything went to hell. That's not their fault, but it is their reality. They've stumbled all the way to this current predicament and now every Cavs fan is spending their free time refreshing Twitter to see if Jarrett Allen will make his return tomorrow night. With the season on the line, I wouldn't rule it out. He's obviously so important to what this team does on both ends, and we saw that impact in their game against BKN.
About that game, man that had to be frustrating as a Cavs fan. How many quality looks did they get against that Nets defense? A billion? 10 billion? The fact of the matter is it really didn't matter how many they got because nobody on the Cavs could make a goddamn shot. The Nets were begging them to take that game and not once did we ever see the Cavs come through. They won 3 of the 4 quarters, came back from down 20 and all they needed to do was make wide open threes and layups and that proved to be too tall a task. That's tough. It basically comes down to this for CLE in my opinion. We know Darius Garland and Evan Mobley are legit. Kevin Love has turned back the clock and is playing some of his best basketball. But for the love of Christ will someone else step up and help these guys? If the Cavs don't want to see their season end tomorrow, they are going to need a MUCH BETTER showing from Caris LeVert and Cedi Osman for example. Those two combined to shoot 4-16 against the Nets and watching it you could make the case that LeVert was actually a Nets plant. He was horrendous. This is a team that has the talent to generate good quality looks, but maybe not the type of talent to actually make said looks. That seems a little problematic.
Why? Because here's the thing about this matchup. The Hawks have had no trouble whatsoever scoring on this team. Here's how their head to head scores looked this season
Game 1: 95 points (game 2 of the year)
Game 2: 121 points
Game 3: 124 points
Game 4: 131 points
None of those games went into OT if you were curious. To keep things simple, this is basically a matchup issue for the Cavs. They really struggle at containing the Hawks shooters (14 3PM, 36%), they don't nearly have the depth available to match the Hawks, and then you factor in the inexperience given how young of a roster CLE has. We all saw how dominant the Hawks looked yesterday correct? While sure the Hornets defense is atrocious, I'm not sure the Cavs offense is going to be able to make enough shots to keep up. We're seeing why so many people think the Hawks could be a dangerous 8 seed, mostly because they aren't your normal 8 seed. Not when Trae Young exists. Not when Capela can outplay the bigs on the other end and before you know it Kevin Huerter/Bogdanovic/Gallo are draining threes in your eyeball. This is not a team like the Nets where outside of their top 2 guys nobody else can really score. A shit ton of players on this Hawks roster can get hot and bury you in an instant. We saw how much the Cavs struggled with the Nets P&R attack, well guess who has the best P&R offense in basketball? Oh right, the Hawks.
Just like their previous games, so much of tomorrow will come down to which supporting cast can actually show up. The good news is the Cavs return home where you would think their role players feel more comfortable. That's pretty normal. They were 26-15 in their old building while the Hawks were 16-25 away from theirs. Once you get into the "postseason", homecourt is obviously a big deal that can sometimes make up for what you may lack in terms of talent. Maybe Okoro will start to make his corner threes, maybe Caris LeVert will look like a guy that has actually played basketball before. If not, their season will be over.
If I'm the Heat, I would much rather play the Cavs. They are a young team that's ahead of schedule. The Hawks are a different beast, especially when they finally come around defensively. That was the key to their turnaround last year and while for most of the year they've sucked ass on that end, as long as you defend now that's all that matters.
New Orleans Pelicans (9) vs Los Angeles Clippers (8)
Head to Head: NO won 3-1
Admit it, chances are you did not watch the Pelicans/Clippers series this season and had no idea that NO ended up winning 3 of 4. Does that maybe change how you view this matchup? On paper, the Clippers should be everyone's pick right? Well fortunately for the Pelicans, these games aren't played on paper. They showed last night that what we've seen over the final 28 games of their season is no fluke. They are playing as well as any team in the league right now and I think they thrive in a situation where maybe the general public starts to underestimate what they can do.
When it comes to how they match up with the Clippers, you can see why they had that success during the regular season. They key to slowing down the Clippers is obviously making sure you can limit all that firepower from the wing. Whether it's George, or Powell, or Mook, Covington or Kennard, the Clippers are stacked at that position and it's where the majority of their offense comes from. To counter that, the Pelicans can throw All NBA Defender Herb Jones at whoever and let him do his thing. Larry Nance is a versatile 3/4 and the Pelicans can counter by simply playing bigger. The Clippers prefer to play small with really only starting Zubac as their legit big in the starting lineup. Batum isn't exactly what I would call a "big" four. He's a stretch four. Well, that could be a problem if they have to deal with a frontline of JV/Hayes.
My question for the Clippers is more along the lines of can they hang offensively with a Pelicans team that has had no problem scoring since mid February. CJ McCollum can take over a game, Brandon Ingram can go blow to blow offensively with any scorer in the league, and the Pels are loaded with what I call microwave scorers. Guys that can get hot in an instant and completely change a game. We literally just saw it last night. I'm not sure only scoring 104 like the Clippers did against the Wolves, who aren't even that good defensively, is going to be enough. We've seen the Pels put up 120+ against this very Clippers team, so you can't rule that out.
Let's also be honest here for a second. This game doesn't really matter. Why? Because no matter who wins, the Suns are going to make quick work out of whoever they play. Sorry, that's the reality. If Kawhi somehow comes back, we can revisit that discussion. But if not? Light work for the Suns. The Pels have been an awesome story all year, but let's not get ridiculous. Essentially these teams are playing for the right to get worked on national TV and that's OK. Honestly, if I was the Clippers I might prefer to just get into the lottery so at least you can have an asset to flip. They won't tank this game, but if Kawhi is nowhere close to being back you could make the case that they actually should. The fact that they were even in the play in discussion given all their injuries was impressive, but this was mostly a lost year anyway.
So while there's a chance that neither winner of this second stage is playing basketball after the month of April ends, all we can ask for is that these two games are just as entertaining as the first four were. Give us one last little playoff appetizer before the real thing starts this weekend and I'll be happy. Chances are that's exactly what we get.