CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Cavaliers season has come to an end after losing to the Atlanta Hawks in the play-in game Friday night inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
Fans packed the house Friday night, entering a familiar atmosphere with towels draped over the seats with the team’s slogan for the season “Let Em Know.” Downtown Cleveland buzzed with energy with the Cleveland Guardians playing their home opener next door.
While the Cavs expected fans to be rowdy and for the arena to be “rockin’,” they entered the game with the mindset to remain even-keeled while still feeding off the energy.
“Everyone uses energy differently, but us personally, when we score or whatever and fans get loud, it’s going to really rally us and give us momentum to go to the next play…and that home game advantage is definitely a big part of the game,” rookie Evan Mobley said at practice a day before the game.
Mobley was correct.
The Cavs came out hot, boasting a 36-25 after the first quarter and while the Hawks fought to regain the lead, the Cavs held them off with successful runs each time the Hawks showed life.
Heading into the half, the Cavs held a 61-51 lead, hitting 10-three pointers in the first two quarters. The team looked like they hadn’t skipped a beat amid the injuries, getting right back to where they left off.
After a dismal third quarter that saw the Hawks claw their way back in the mix, the Cavs were in a back and forth, exchanging leads into the fourth quarter. There were stretches where lineups were questionable—at one point Caris LeVert and Isaac Okoro sharing the court—and other moments where officiating was questionable—with the refs missing two seemingly blatant flagrant fouls Friday night. Kevin Love played just 10 minutes while Lamar Stevens and Cedi Osman played none.
Despite fighting hard to stay in the game through the second-half struggles, the Cavs weren’t able to pull it off, losing to the Hawks 107-101.
In the loss, Darius Garland put up 21 points, nine assists and three rebounds, but shot just 9-for-27. Lauri Markkanen led the way in scoring with 26 points in addition to eight rebounds, but made a crucial mistake at the end of the game, turning over the ball when the Cavs had a chance to regain the lead.
Mobley scored 18 while putting up eight boards and five assists while Jarrett Allen, who returned after missing the past month with a fractured finger, scored 11 with three rebounds and two assists. LeVert notched 16 points of his own with five assists to boot.
The Cavs are a young team with a young coach, and inexperience showed up at a tough time. Struggles to respond to Hawks star Trae Young, who had 38 points and nine assists, were evident and costly, but the Cavs stagnant offense in the second half only sealed their fate.
A win to earn a playoff series would have been surely beneficial as they continue developing, but Friday night’s play-in game held lessons of its own.
Garland said that taking care of the ball is a major point of growth for him that he's taking away from the game, but the biggest lesson of the night that they can take into next season is the experience of the moment itself.
"It was a good year for us. Now we know how it is—what a playoff atmosphere looks like," Garland said. "We wasn't supposed to be here in the first place."
Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said that the lessons learned will carry into next season.
"You need these moments of disappointment. All successful teams at some point in time have had a moment of disappointment that has driven individuals and teams to be better and I expect this to be that moment," Bickerstaff said. "As frustrating as it is, you have to take these lumps sometimes to get where you want to go."
While Friday's loss was disappointing, the season was not. The Cavs shocked everyone with the way they played this year. For the first time since 2018 and the first time without LeBron James on the roster since 1998, the Cavs clinched a winning record. They faced adversity time and time again but never let it shake them. They embraced an underdog mentality and thrived off it, showing heart and grit night in and night out.
There is plenty for the young Cavs team to be proud of and this season just might be the foundation for a stretch of very competitive and successful years for Cleveland basketball.
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