The Cleveland Cavaliers split their games this week with a road loss to the Boston Celtics and an easy win over the Detroit Pistons. Here’s what we learned from both.
Bigs who can shoot continue to give the Cavs’ problems
The defenses’ commitment to protecting the rim at the expense of the three-point line has come back to bit the Cavs multiple times this season. That is especially true when going up a big who can shoot.
Horford is having by far his best outside shooting season of his 16-year career as he is hitting 44.5% of his outside shots on 4.9 threes per game. This was especially true on Wednesday. He torched the Cavs by going 6-8 from deep en route to 23 points.
Evan Mobley simply can’t leave Horford, who is shooting a blistering 48% from the corner, on this drive from Tatum. This is an easy pass for a right hander to make. Allen’s late contest doesn’t influence the shot in any meaningful way.
Next, we see Allen get caught in no man’s land. While this isn’t a simple left-to-right pass that’s easy for a righty, hitting the strongside corner is a simple pass to make. Osman doesn’t rotate over to cover Horford.
Lastly, Mobley gets caught in no man’s land. He stuck between helping on a Robert Williams III post up and staying with Horford. He gets back to Horford, but not before he’s already going up with the shot. When you give a 44.5% three-point shooter a chance to go up cleanly, it’s already too late to make any real difference on the shot.
The frustrating part for Cleveland was that leaving shooters didn’t have a meaningful impact on keeping Boston from scoring in the paint. They finished with 44 paint points while Tatum finished with 41 points and 8 assists.
Boston was able to have their cake and eat it too. That is how Boston is able to end the game with a 127.2 offensive rating.
Donovan Mitchell has Boston’s number
One of the constants this has been Mitchell playing his best against the Celtics. He notched his second 40-point game in TD Garden this season on Wednesday night. Mitchell is now averaging 36.7 points on .512/.400/.923 shooting splits and 4.7 assists in three contests.
Boston’s defense made it difficult for Cleveland to get anything going. Boston’s ability and comfort switching screens while not giving up mismatches often stalls out Cleveland’s offense leading to more isolation possessions than J.B. Bickerstaff would likely prefer. Fortunately for the Cavs, the Celtics’ perimeter defenders haven’t given Mitchell many problems.
Mitchell’s handle, quick first step and ability to absorb and finish through contact have made him a tough matchup for Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and whoever else has been switched onto Mitchell. We saw this on full display in the third quarter when Mitchell scored 19 of the Cavs’ 26 points which included connecting on 6 of his 7 attempts in the paint.
The All-Star starter is seemingly always in control on drives. Here, Tatum does a good job of walling off the rim with help from Al Horford at the rim. That doesn’t matter as Mitchell is still able to get to his right hand for the easy push shot.
Mitchell has done an excellent job of exploiting mismatches when the Celtics’ switch. This is just a simple blow-by of Horford who doesn’t have the foot speed to stay with Mitchell. With Horford on the perimeter, there’s no one able to help on the backline.
In this last clip, we simply see Derrick White bounce off of Mitchell after he picks up his dribble resulting in an and-one. Smart isn’t able to help as he elects to not leave Cedi Osman in the strong-side corner.
Mitchell has been the main source of offense for the Cavs all season. His play in Boston kept the Cavs somewhat within shouting distance in a game they had no business otherwise competing in.
The role players remain down bad
Players outside of the core four continue to struggle. You could see this coming with a road game in Boston. Caris LeVert was the only role player to register in double figures with 10 points on 5-11 shooting with 3 assists. Overall, players outside of the core four contributed 23 points on 8-19 shooting with no assists outside of LeVert’s in a combined 76 minutes of play. This is not going to get the job done when Allen and Mobley struggle as much as they did offensively.
The Cavs took care of business against a short-handed and absolutely dreadful Detroit team with a 114-90 win. The supporting cast still wasn’t able to get right in that game either. Osman and Dean Wade were pulled early at various points for Lamar Stevens who isn’t someone who should or will likely factor into the playoff rotation. LeVert was once again the only player to register double figures in scoring. The quintet of Isaac Okoro, Ricky Rubio, LeVert, Wade and Osman combined for 26 points on 9-27 (33.3%) shooting in 94 minutes of play.
This is a trend that has been going on for the better part of a month. LeVert has not been a consistent contributor at all, but he is head and shoulders above the rest of his teammates in that grouping. Okoro continues to help the Cavs’ starting lineup, but his fall back to earth offensively caps how useful he can be. The Cavs aren’t struggling to find good minutes from their role players, they’re struggling to find minutes that haven’t been an absolute trainwreck.
Wade has been the one that is most lost. He’s registered just 8 points on 3-15 shooting and 12 rebounds in the 70 minutes he’s played since Kevin Love’s buyout. Unsurprisingly, Cleveland has been outscored by 16.2 points per 100 possessions with Wade on the floor during that stretch.
Top team’s will go as far as their best players take them. But that adage is assuming that the role players aren’t an unmitigated disaster. The core four currently needs to be perfect to be competitive against other teams near them in the standings. Bickerstaff and company are running out of time to figure out how to make the role players and rotation as useful as possible.