The Meta Quest NBA Play-In tournament reaches a crescendo on Friday, as four teams battle it out for the final two playoff spots just a day before the playoffs begin.
Cleveland hosts Atlanta for eighth in the East (7:30 a.m. ET, ESPN), followed by New Orleans heading to Los Angeles, where they’ll swing against the Clippers (10 a.m. ET, TNT) for the final playoff spot. from West.
2021 Eastern Conference runners-up, the Hawks edged out the Hornets, 132-103, on Wednesday behind Trae Young’s 24 points and a monstrous third quarter that blew up the game. The Pelicans edged the San Antonio Spurs, 113-103, in the final drink thanks to a 32-point night from CJ McCollum.
The winner between Atlanta and Cleveland ranks eighth in the East and opens the playoffs Sunday at 1 ET against No. 1 seed Miami. “We’re a good team and we click at the right time,” Young said in his post-game on-field interview. The Pelicans-Clippers winner opens the playoffs on the road Sunday, taking on the top-seeded Phoenix Suns in the West.
“It’s win or go home,” Clippers guard Paul George said after scoring a game-high 34 points in Tuesday’s loss to Minnesota. “Obviously, [if] we don’t win, we go home. I don’t care who we play. The mindset is that we have to win regardless. There are no pep talks, Xs and O’s. We have to win. We have to win if we want to continue our season.
The Cavaliers and Clippers find themselves in their respective positions after losses to the Nets and Timberwolves in Tuesday’s slate of games between the seventh and eighth seeds in both conferences. Brooklyn took a 20-point lead over Cleveland after one quarter to earn a wire-to-wire victory behind Kyrie Irving’s 34 points. The Clippers, meanwhile, fell to Minnesota, 109-104, in a dogfight that featured eight lead changes and nine draws, as Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell delivered the final stretch after star center Karl-Anthony Towns was fouled.
“They played a lot better without KAT on the ground,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “They attacked us defensively. I just don’t think we made the right games.
Atlanta Hawks @ Cleveland Cavaliers | 7:30 a.m. ET, ESPN
For Cleveland, it’s all about picking your poison when it comes to defending Young, who led the NBA this season in total points and assists. Charlotte learned the hard way on Wednesday, despite having some early success with Young’s blitz and doubling it. While Young’s blitz makes sense, you have to consider that Atlanta’s roster was built specifically to defeat such tactics. Young shot just 3 of 13 in the first half, but he’s developed a knack for finding open teammates once defenders show up. That’s how Young delivered 11 assists against Charlotte, as all five Hawks starters scored in double figures with Bogdan Bogdanovic having 13 points. “If you can get two guys to guard you, that just opens the door for everyone else,” Young said. “I have to kiss her.” That’s naturally what you would do when you have so many solid shooters in the supporting cast such as Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter and Danilo Gallinari.
For Cleveland to slow Young down somewhat, he may need to work on defense with quick point guard Darius Garland, who had 34 points on Tuesday against Kyrie Irving. Garland and Young have faced each other seven times, with the Cavs point guard averaging 16.7 points, 5.9 assists and 1.3 rebounds. Garland has averaged 24 points in his last two outings against Atlanta. Even though the Hawks have won three of four meetings this season against Cleveland, the Cavs have yet to meet them with all five regular starters healthy.
The center game between rookie Evan Mobley and Clint Capela could prove to be both very competitive and hard-hitting. Both are long, long, athletic lob threats on the offensive side with point guards capable of passing the ball to them often. All-Star center Jarrett Allen’s status for Friday remains unknown as he is still recovering from a broken finger. Allen’s return would push Mobley forward, giving Cleveland more clout and even more defense in the paint. Cavaliers coach JB Bickerstaff said the team is “just in a waiting situation” with Allen’s potential return.
New Orleans Pelicans @ LA Clippers | 10 ET, DTT
Zion Williamson didn’t play a game in 2021-22 and New Orleans started the season 3-16, only to fight their way to a potential playoff berth – which would mark the team’s first since 2018. The Pelicans have defeated the LA Clippers in three of four meetings this season. Paul George only missed one of those matchups, while CJ McCollum actually played in one of those outings, having joined New Orleans in a trade in February. The McCollum and Brandon Ingram duo could prove difficult for Reggie Jackson and Paul George to contain on the perimeter. Jackson and George are solid defenders, but McCollum and Ingram showed just how dangerous they were Wednesday against Spurs when they combined for 59 points.
Still, the Clippers have shown they can neutralize McCollum and Ingram. In a 119-100 victory over New Orleans on April 3, LA limited McCollum to just 7 of 18 shots, while allowing him to reach the free throw line four times. That same game, Ingram shot just 3 for 11 for 15 points. It’s a safe bet LA will also be keeping tabs on Jonas Valanciunas, who was deadly from deep earlier in the season in wins over the Clippers. The big man shot 5-for-9 from 3-point range against LA on Nov. 19, followed on Nov. 29 with a 7-for-8 performance from range. When the teams last met on April 3, Valanciunas didn’t attempt a 3. But the Clippers surely won’t forget Valanciunas’ long-range abilities.
New Orleans rookie Herb Jones averaged nearly two steals per game during the regular season, and he showed his ability to lock down opponents’ best playmakers, which should come in handy against George. In a Pelicans win over the Clippers in November, Jones went 1-1 against George for possession, and came away with a block that surprised the crowd at the Smoothie King Center, while putting him on the card as a defender. . Jones has already shut down Donovan Mitchell this season, and the Pelicans have shown no hesitation in pitting him against guards such as Ja Morant and Trae Young, as well as wings like Pascal Siakam and Anthony Edwards. The Clippers will try to minimize Jones’ impact defensively.
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Michael C. Wright is Senior Writer for NBA.com. You can email him herefind his archives here and follow him on Twitter.
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