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Takeaways from the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 121-108 loss to the Denver Nuggets

The Cavs’ road trip starts with a loss.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ road trip didn’t start on a high note.

In a 121-108 loss to the Denver Nuggets, the Cavs didn’t put forth anything close to their best effort. Cleveland, without Donovan Mitchell, got outscored in the second and third quarters 68-54.

Darius Garland, returning to the lineup after three games with a hand issue, finished with 21 points and 8 assists. Caris LeVert led Cleveland with 22 points.

Missing Donovan Mitchell

Garland’s return was a welcome sight for the Cavs — he provides playmaking and creation for others that no one else on the roster can replicate. Even on a night where Cleveland’s offense wasn’t humming, he had 8 assists vs. 1 turnovers.

But the Cavs absolutely missed Mitchell in a major way. When he’s not on the floor in games he’s playing or just not playing at all, offense just becomes much harder for Cleveland. The Nuggets aren’t a great defensive team — the have a bottom-six defense in the league, per Cleaning The Glass — and yet offense felt hard for the Cavs on Friday.

The Cavs are a defense-first team. More often than not, they win games with a good-to-great defense performance paired with an average-to-good offensive performance. But sometimes, particularly when Cleveland plays an elite offensive team like Denver that turns games into shootouts, they need to be able to hit a higher level and bank on the defense showing up when it matters most. If they get into shootouts, they have to be won on the Cavs’ terms.

Mitchell is that good and that important to that strategy. There’s no real fix for not having him. But finding ways to juice the offense a little bit — and ease the burden on Garland — when Mitchell isn’t on floor should be a goal for the Cavs as the season goes on.

Evan Mobley, struggling

This was not a banner game for Mobley on offense. He struggled to find positioning against Aaron Gordon in the post, particularly in post-up situations. For Mobley to maximize himself on offense — particularly since he’s not a shooter and hasn’t made a three-pointer since Dec. 17 — he has to score in this spots. He was 6-13 against the Nuggets, including 6-11 on twos.

Mobley was also 0-6 from the free throw line. He’s solid enough from the line — 71.2% on the year coming into Friday on 3.6 attempts per game, per basketball reference. Against Denver, the aggression was there and he got to the line more than enough to compensate for an average night from the field. And he just didn’t capitalize. A better game for Mobley probably makes this game more winnable for Cleveland.

Caris LeVert, playing with pop

Credit to Caris LeVert: He played with the effort and energy that Cleveland needs from him against the Nuggets.

The best version of LeVert is pushing the pace and trying to attack before a defense gets set in the half court or, if they are already set, attacking when there’s a gap in the coverage. That, paired with a confident shooting night, resulted in a 22-point, 3-assist night on 8-13 shooting, including 3-4 from three.

This is the template for LeVert, particularly when Mitchell is back and Ricky Rubio is too and he’s either the third or fourth ball handling option. He has to put up effort on defense too — that’s non-negotiable on a J.B. Bickerstaff team — but his value is going to come from performances like this where he makes things happen by pushing. When LeVert doesn’t wait, good things are more likely to happen.

Up next: The Cavs’ road trip continues on Sunday against the Phoenix Suns in a rematch of a game from earlier this week. Tipoff is at 9 p.m.