By BRIAN MAHONEY – AP basketball writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have played in the NBA Finals and the Olympics, so they’ve been in pretty much every big game there is.
The play-in tournament is something new for them, and the Brooklyn Nets certainly didn’t expect to see it this year.
The Cleveland Cavaliers weren’t sure they would either, after losing 50 games last season. Now one of the teams will extend its season into the playoffs by winning Tuesday night’s opener in Brooklyn.
“Let’s do it,” Irving said.
Both finished 44-38, with the Nets finishing seventh with a 3-1 win over the Cavaliers. They finished Friday’s tiebreak by beating Cleveland 118-107, although that did nothing to make the Cavs think they couldn’t go to Brooklyn and win five nights later.
“We think we can beat anyone in this league,” said coach JB Bickerstaff. “We just have to play our best basketball. We know what lies ahead.”
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They face a team that was expected to be at the top of the Eastern Conference, and not one that’s still trying to play its way into the postseason. But Irving was unable to play home games until late last month because he is not vaccinated against the coronavirus. Durant missed 21 games with a sprained left knee. James Harden was traded off for Ben Simmons, who didn’t play due to back problems.
“For us, we know we could find every excuse in the world for what happened this season,” Irving said. “So many different things have happened, ups and downs, and now we’re finally here and able to perform together for the first time in a high-intensity environment like the playoffs.”
He made the biggest throw in Cavaliers history, completing their comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the 2016 NBA Finals. Durant was the MVP of the next two NBA Finals and has three Olympic gold medals. Both were Basketball World Cup MVPs and said this game will feel like one at the end of a playoff series.
“Game 7, Olympics, just go play,” Durant said. “I mean, you can’t put too much pressure on yourself. We understand how important the game is already so the best thing to do is just play free and stick to the game plan and have faith in your teammates and I think that’s usually how you try to approach these games and we will see what happens.”
The winner gets the No. 7 seed and meets No. 2 Boston in a first-round series beginning Sunday. The loser gets a second chance to enter as No. 8 and hosts the winner of the Atlanta-Charlotte matchup on Friday, to have the right to play top seeded Miami.
The Cavaliers appeared to be heading into the postseason easily before stumbling down the stretch after losing all-star center Jarrett Allen to a broken finger. He’s not expected to return to his former team, but the Cavaliers already knew they had to play hard, with or without him.
“JB likes to say win the scrap and all our battles will be won in the trenches. That’s how it has to be on Tuesday night,” said striker Kevin Love. “We’re familiar with them and we know what they’re capable of, especially with their two superstars that they have.”
The Cavaliers listed the 7-foot as Monday’s injury report.
He went through intense training that included target practice before Sunday’s game while members of Cleveland’s front office watched his every move closely. Allen had just taped his injured finger to another after wearing a protective splint for most of the past few weeks.
Allen has not played since his injury on March 6, and the Cavs have not been the same without him. They went 3-8 in their last 11 games and had no response under Friday for Nets center Andre Drummond, who had 15 points and 12 rebounds.
“He’s obviously the anchor of the defense and things he can do offensively and help the other guys,” said Lauri Markkanen. “And I think it’s obvious that we miss him very much.”
Durant and Irving were asked what they thought of the play-in where the Lakers defeated Golden State in the opening round last year in their first season of the current format.
“Well, No. 1, I think someone’s in the back room cheering whoever created the play-in tournament because last year you get Steph and LeBron,” Irving said. “This year you put me and KD in the play-in game against the Cavs and then in the Western Conference you have Minnesota and the Clippers.”
The Cavs’ rebuild went from stagnant to supersonic in one season.
Cleveland weren’t expected to compete in 2022, let alone double their overall wins, and be among the top teams in the East despite an extraordinary injury spell.
Bickerstaff sensed something special about his youth group at the training camp.
“We expected that,” he said ahead of Sunday’s win against Milwaukee. “From those early moments, we felt like something was brewing. We’ve been hit hard and in some areas we really haven’t had a chance to see who we still are as a collective.
“But once we got that group together, we knew they had a chance to be a good basketball team. And, ups and downs and bumps and bruises, that kind of thing, we’re here and we have an opportunity to keep playing.
AP sportswriter Tom Withers from Cleveland contributed to this report.
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