Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are NBA veterans in every sense of the word.
They are multi-time All-Stars, 3-point contest champions and both have played integral roles on Team USA, with Love winning Olympic gold in 2012 and Irving capturing the world championship last year in Spain.
Come Sunday, the Cleveland Cavaliers teammates will be rookies all over again.
For all they have experienced in their still-young careers, Love and Irving have never been in the playoffs. They will make their debuts in Game 1 against the Boston Celtics in Cleveland on Sunday, and a host of other young, up-and-coming stars will be joining them this weekend.
“I think they’re excited and they’re looking forward to their first time,” said LeBron James, the two-time champion who will show them the way. “They are very excited. None of us know, the game is played on Sunday, but I think they’re ready for it.”
The same could be said for rising superstar Anthony Davis in New Orleans, Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee and Isaiah Thomas in Boston, all players at the center of their teams’ hopes in the postseason. Others like Chicago’s Nikola Mirotic, Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson and Milwaukee’s Michael Carter-Williams will be expected to play key supporting roles in their first trips to the league’s biggest stage.
Just like it has been all season, the primary focus will be in Cleveland, a tortured city with a 50-year championship drought that is pinning its hopes to James and his two star teammates. Love spent his first six seasons frustrated in Minnesota, where the Timberwolves failed to surround him with the talent needed to be competitive in the Western Conference.
Irving was the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, but the Cavaliers struggled in his first three seasons to recover from James’ decision to leave for Miami.
Love and Irving combined to go 231-475 before this season for a winning percentage of .327. They went through their growing pains while assimilating to James’ leadership early this season, but helped the Cavaliers to a league-best 33-9 finish to place second in the Eastern Conference.
Now everything Love heard his Team USA teammates talking about in London in 2012 is right there for him to experience.
“I know I’m not the only one on this team,” Love said, referring to fellow first timers like Thompson and Irving. “So we’re going to be hungry for a good playoff run, and I can’t wait to get it started.”
Irving said Game 1 will be the biggest game he’s ever played in and he’s talked to James and other playoff-tested Cavaliers like Mike Miller and Kendrick Perkins to try to prepare himself.
“As a competitor, it’s going to be a high-level game,” Irving said. “It’s something I’ve dreamt of since I was a kid and I just can’t wait.”
Charles Barkley, the Hall of Famer turned TNT analyst, didn’t seem too concerned with how players like Love, Irving and Davis would respond.
“The Cavaliers (did not miss) the playoffs because of Kyrie Irving. The Minnesota Timberwolves (did not miss) the playoffs because of Kevin Love,” Barkley said. “These guys are perennial All-Stars. … This notion that they haven’t been through the fire I think is a little overrated. They’re going to play well.”
In Portland, C.J. McCollum isn’t technically a playoff rookie — he played 24 minutes over six games last year. But he will be a far bigger piece to the Trail Blazers’ puzzle after injuries to guards Wesley Matthews and Arron Afflalo.
Thomas missed the playoffs in each of his first three seasons with the Sacramento Kings, and hoped to end that drought when he signed with the Phoenix Suns last summer. It wasn’t working there, but he helped push the Celtics into the playoffs after being traded there in February.
Mirotic has enjoyed an impressive first season in the NBA after coming to the Bulls from Europe and in his 10th season, Dallas forward Charlie Villanueva will snap the longest active playoff drought in the league when the Mavericks play Game 1 in Houston on Saturday. Villanueva played 591 games without making the postseason.
“You have success in college, you think you’re going to have a lot of success in the NBA, too,” said Villanueva, who starred at UConn. “Last thing I thought I would be in this drought for this amount of years and not making the postseason. Never would have thought this in a million years. But things happen. And now it’s taken me to where I’m at today.”
Antetokounmpo just smiled when asked if he could compare making the playoffs in the NBA to anything else in his first two years in the league or playing in Europe.
“I’ve never felt it yet, how the playoffs are, the things that guys are telling me,” he said.
Talk only goes so far this time of year, said Miller, a 15-year veteran who followed James to Cleveland.
“You can tell them all you want. You gotta go through it, like everybody else does,” Miller said. “The good thing about it is that everybody was a first-timer at one time. That’s the way it is. I would rather have first-timers with tons of talent.”
AP Sports Writers Tom Withers in Cleveland, Schuyler Dixon in Dallas and Genaro Armas in Milwaukee contributed to this story.
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