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What to watch for in Cleveland Cavaliers at Atlanta Hawks

The playoff-bound Cavs face a Hawks team looking to stay in the race.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers, now officially playoff-bound after clinching at home against Houston, will head on the road and face the Atlanta Hawks who themselves are looking to stay in the postseason hunt. Cleveland is now playing for seeding in the Eastern Conference, while Atlanta sits in the eight-seed and only one game ahead of the 10th-seeded Chicago Bulls.

Who: Cleveland Cavaliers (48-28) vs. Houston Rockets (37-38)

Where: State Farm Arena, Atlanta, Georgia

When: 7:30 p.m. EST

TV: Bally Sports Ohio, Bally Sports Southeast

Spread: Cleveland -1 (via Draft Kings)

Opposing Blog: Peachtree Hoops

Cavs’ expected starting lineup: Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Caris LeVert, Lamar Stevens, Evan Mobley

Cavs’ injury report: Jarrett Allen (QUESTIONABLE - Groin Strain), Isaac Okoro (QUESTIONABLE - Left Knee Soreness), Dean Wade (DOUBTFUL - Illness), Raul Neto (OUT - hamstring), Danny Green (OUT - Health and Safety Protocols), Sam Merrill (OUT - G League), Isaiah Mobley (OUT - G League), Dylan Windler (OUT - G League),

Hawks expected starting lineup: Trae Young, Dejounte Murray, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, Clint Capela

Hawks injury report: Jalen Johnson (OUT - Hamstring/Groin)

What to watch for

Playoff seeding

While the Cavs have officially clinched a postseason berth for the first time since LeBron James left for Los Angeles, there is still work to be done to help maximize a deep playoff run. Playoff seeding matters for the Cavaliers, who are virtually locked into at worst the four-seed which means having a home-court advantage for at least the first round. The Cavs are just 1.5 games behind the Philadelphia 76ers for the three-seed, which would likely entail a first-round matchup against the Brooklyn Nets or Miami Heat.

The Cavs can undoubtedly catch the Sixers. Cleveland has won four straight games and Philadelphia has dropped three straight. Joel Embiid and James Harden are a little banged up, missing last night’s game against the Denver Nuggets. Plus, the Sixers have a pretty daunting schedule the rest of the way. Philadelphia will face the Mavericks, Raptors, Bucks, Celtics, Heat, Hawks, and Nets - all teams fighting for the playoffs or seeding in some capacity. Cleveland has games against the Hawks, Knicks, Pacers, Orlando twice, and the Hornets to round out the season. Those are teams with...less to play for. Don’t look now, but the Cavs are certainly within striking distance of the three-seed.

Injuries and the bench

The Cavs' injury report, which was deceptively short for several weeks, is now piled back up. Dean Wade and Danny Green are sick, Jarrett Allen and Isaac Okoro have tissue injuries, and several other G League guys are gearing up for the Cleveland Charge playoff run. So there are a few holes.

One would imagine that if the playoffs were tomorrow, Allen and Okoro would be good to go. But with the playoffs clinched and the stakes slightly lower, there may be some more rest available for key players. Cleveland’s bench has been a roller coaster experience for much of the season, but with pressure a little lower now, it would be prudent for J.B. to get the bench guys more court time. Cedi Osman, Caris LeVert, Lamar Stevens, Ricky Rubio, and Mamadi Diakite could all get some extra runs to help prepare for the postseason. Bickerstaff has mostly stuck with LeVert, Rubio, and Stevens, but there will be more minutes available.

With a heavy bench lineup, and Allen potentially out, that means there will be more Evan Mobley at the center. The Cavs are a +9.1 with Mobley at the five and have a defense in the 97th percentile per Cleaning the Glass. The offense looks a lot better too when Mobley can do stuff like this:

A guy that size doing Dirk Nowitzki things while also being an all-defense caliber center. Good luck.

Top tens facing off

Atlanta is a confounding team. They appeared like clear winners this past offseason with the acquisition of Dejounte Murray, pairing Trae Young with a defense-first guard who can make plays and score as well. Atlanta has the eighth-best offense in the NBA, averages the 4th-most points per game, rarely turns the ball over, and has the ninth-best field goal percentage. The Hawks also have Quin Snyder now coaching, a defensive-minded leader which has provided a bit of a jolt to the roster. Plus, Atlanta just seems to get up for games against the Cavs - and they certainly did last time out in February as they drubbed Cleveland by 17 points.

The Cavs have the best defense in the NBA by rating, but they have had a little more trouble with the Hawks. Atlanta is shooting 51.9% overall and 42.6% from deep against Cleveland, both in the top ten in terms of opponent field goal-making. The Hawks, despite being one of the poster children for getting to the free throw line, average the seventh-fewest per game - yet have the third-best free throw percentage in the league. So their offense is pretty efficient all things considered.

The Cavs' defense will also likely be a little limited. Even if Allen is able to play, he will likely be a little limited with the soft tissue injury out of an abundance of caution. Clint Capela and John Collins are tough customers in the paint both offensively and in terms of rebounding. The Hawks average the ninth-most rebounds per game while the Cavaliers are 25th. It is just difficult to replace this kind of rim protection:

Without Allen, the rebounding will become even more of a factor — which may lead to some Stevens minutes. Okoro is banged up too, so the Cavs would be without another key defender who likely would have been tasked with bodying up Young. Caris LeVert has been playing pretty good defense since the All-Star break, so that should help mitigate things a little.