With 82 games in the books, now the rubber hits the road – as 20 teams vie for the World Championship, beginning with this weeks’ Play-In Tournament.
The Cavaliers and Nets tip it off on Tuesday night – a one-game test for the 7th seed, with the loser moving on to face the 9-10 Game winner on Friday night.
These two teams have already squared off four times this season – with Brooklyn taking three of those decisions, including a tight loss last Friday night at the Barclays Center. The Nets will still be without Ben Simmons and the Cavaliers, without Jarrett Allen, but there will still be plenty of star-power on the floor tonight.
Darius Garland was outstanding against the Nets this season – averaging 25.3 points and 8.0 assists per – topping the 20-point mark in three of the four meetings, including a 31-point outburst last Friday night.
Neither of Brooklyn’s stars played in all four meetings, but Kevin Durant did enough damage in three of them – averaging 28.7 points per while shooting 51 percent from the floor, 54 percent from beyond the arc. Kyrie Irving was almost as good, averaging 22.5 points and 8.5 assist in two matchups with the Cavs. Isaac Okoro will get try to get physical with the former Cavalier guard on Tuesday night.
The Cavaliers won’t have their complete jumbo frontcourt when they tangle with the Nets on Tuesday – with Jarrett Allen still nursing a fractured finger. But the squad has adjusted with another former Net, Caris LeVert, in the starting lineup and Moses Brown – a late-season revelation – coming off the bench.
Evan Mobley returned from a five-game absence with an ankle sprain against Brooklyn on Friday and looked like he’d barely missed a beat – finishing with 17 points, seven boards, two steals and a pair of swats. The prized rookie played in two games against Brooklyn this year, tallying double-digit scoring in both.
Lauri Markkanen was very good against Brooklyn this year – averaging 17.7 points and 6.0 boards in three meetings. And Moses Brown started five games late in the season – netting double-figure scoring in four and double-digit rebounds in four.
The Nets go with former Cavalier Andre Dummond in the middle, and he’s been rock-solid since arriving in the trade with Philly. Drummond doubled-up in six of his final games this year – including a 15-point, 12-rebound outing last week against Cleveland.
Nicolas Claxton is an outstanding backup big man – notching double-figures in seven games and shooting .725 from the floor since the start of March.
The Nets can certainly beat you with their superstars – and Ben Simmons hasn’t even suited up yet. But this year, Brooklyn’s “other guys” and reserves have done almost as much damage in their head-to-head meetings with Cleveland.
LaMarcus Aldridge, who didn’t play in the final meeting of the season, averaged 12.9 points against the league this year and 19.3ppg against the Wine & Gold. He and Patty Mills combined for 45 points in Brooklyn’s first win back in November, and guard Bruce Brown nearly went for a triple-double in last Friday’s victory over Cleveland at the Barclays Center.
Brooklyn also has the luxury of being able to bring Aldridge, Mills, Blake Griffin, Nicolas Claxton and the recently-cleared Goran Dragic off the bench. Seth Curry isn’t quite Kyrie Irving – or his younger brother – but he did average 15.0 points this season with Philly and Brooklyn, topping the 20-point plateau on 19 occasions. And Brooklyn also boasts a pair of impressive rookies – Kessler Edwards and Cam Thomas.
The Cavaliers bench has been one of its strengths all season, too.
That group is obviously led by Kevin Love, who’s been one of the Association’s top Sixth Men all season – and capped his stellar campaign with an historic outburst on Sunday, becoming the first player in the shot-clock era to net at least 30 points and 10 boards in less than 15 minutes of work.
Cleveland’s second unit hasn’t had quite the success against Brooklyn that the Nets’ reserves have. Aside from Love, only Cedi Osman and Ricky Rubio notched double-figures off the bench against the Nets this year.
But the Cavs second unit will still be critical – especially Lamar Stevens on the defensive end and veteran Rajon Rondo, one of the few Cavaliers with postseason experience.
COURTESY CLEVELAND CAVALIERS COMMUNICATIONS