The Cavs made life difficult for Luka Dončić.
Cleveland came into this game with a simple formula. Hound Dončić with Lamar Stevens and Isaac Okoro at all times while keeping plenty of help at the rim in case he’s able to get by. Dončić still got his points, as he finished with 30, but it disrupted the flow of the Mavs’ entire offense while making him work incredibly hard to generate looks for himself.
Dončić is a three-level scorer who doesn’t rely on one particular spot on the floor to generate his offense. The variety of ways he can beat you make him a tough cover and deadly from nearly every spot on the floor.
Cleveland was able to make it difficult for him to finish in the paint with their length. This was especially true in the first half where he connected on 2 of his 8 shots in the paint while only getting to the line three times. Dončić showed signs of life in the second half, but it was too late to make a legitimate run.
Having Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen helps in so many ways. But in a matchup like this where you have to be super aggressive on a perimeter ball handler at the risk of being blown by, it’s invaluable.
Running heavy doses of Stevens and Okoro with the two bigs can make things difficult for the offense in the half-court. Those concerns don’t matter though if Donovan Mitchell can completely carry the load.
Donovan Mitchell is a one-man offense.
Mitchell’s performance in the playoffs against Dallas was the straw that broke the camel's back. Dallas repeatedly made Mitchell look like a traffic cone on the defensive end en route to a humiliating first-round loss that caused the Utah Jazz to shift directions.
Mitchell looked like a completely different person eight months later. He couldn’t miss in the first half as he racked up 27 points on a crisp 10-12 shooting.
Mitchell slowed down some in the second as he finished with 34 points on 13-20 shooting with 4 assists. But, his ability to commit to the defensive end never lessened throughout his 37 and a half minutes.
The commitment to both ends has made this season what it is for both himself and the Cavs. The backcourt pairing doesn’t work on the defensive end if he doesn’t buy in as he has.
Lamar Stevens was everywhere.
Stevens tied for the second-highest scoring output of his NBA career as he notched 18 points on 8-15 shooting with 11 boards in 38 and a half minutes of play. He also was a game-high +22 in the win.
Although an unconventional fit, the Cavs have been able to win with Stevens in the starting lineup as they are now 8-5 when he’s in the opening five. His ability to move off-ball, finish in traffic and attack in transition can mitigate the shooting concerns which are still very much present. Combined with his high defensive motor, this team is capable of playing good basketball when everything is clicking.
There aren’t a lot of healthy bodies J.B. Bickerstaff trusts.
This was an important game for the Cavs and one that they would’ve liked to win. However, this wasn’t a must-win. Bickerstaff tightened up his rotation in the second half like it was one and not a random December road contest.
Only seven guys saw the floor in non-garbage time minutes in the second half. Kevin Love, who has been in a slump to say it mildly, saw just over three minutes. Bickerstaff essentially rode out the starters and Caris LeVert the entire way resulting in every starter playing 34-plus minutes.
Cedi Osman didn’t get any action after only playing seven minutes in Monday’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs. This wasn’t a great matchup for him considering Dončić, but it’s still odd to see him not get any minutes considering how well the team generally plays with him on the floor.
It’s not a vote of confidence for the rest of the rotation that Bickerstaff doesn’t trust them to have any part of a game the opponent never led in and only got within ten points for less than 15 seconds in the fourth.
The Cavs’ dominated the fourth quarter.
Much has been made of the team’s inability to deliver in the clutch this season. The Cavs found an answer to that tonight. Avoid clutch time altogether.
Dallas won the third quarter 27-23 after being down 19 at the half. The lead was cut to nine with just over seven minutes left before Cleveland came out and slammed the door shut. They won the final seven minutes 14-8 in a dominant defensive fashion.
This game doesn’t cure the issues that have plagued this team, which is mainly the inability of the offense to generate in the half-court late in games. Forty-five second-half points aren’t exactly an offensive explosion. But, they executed well enough down the stretch and were able to string together stops and buckets when they needed it most.
Good teams find a way to win on the road. The Cavs haven’t been able to do that often enough this season as the win brings them to 6-9 away from the FieldHouse. But this was a step in the right direction and something to build off of.