The Cleveland Cavaliers are down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series. It should sound familiar, but this is a different time in Cavs history and the ghost of number 23 is not walking through those doors. Cleveland faces elimination at home, a place where they went 31-10 in the regular season. Here is what to watch for.
Donovan Mitchell needs to step up
The long and short of it is that the Cavs need much, much more out of Donovan Mitchell in Game 5 if they want any hope of staving off elimination. Mitchell leads the team this postseason with 22 points per game, but is shooting a paltry 43% from the floor and 30.3% from deep (he shot 48.4% and 38.6% from deep in the regular season, respectively). Mitchell is also averaging four turnovers per game, up again from his regular season average of 2.6.
New York has done a nice job defensively, and their point-of-attack defense has given the Cavaliers’ guards fits all series. Josh Hart and Miles McBride have stuck with Mitchell really well, and the Knicks have issued double teams to force him to give up the ball. It doesn’t help that the Cavs’ supporting cast has largely been non-threatening on the offensive end, making the choice to double Mitchell easy.
After a demoralizing Game 3 loss, there was an expectation that Mitchell would come out and put together a masterful performance to help even the series. This is why the Cavaliers moved so many assets for him in the first place. But he wilted in the spotlight in Game 4 too, shooting 5-18 from the floor, scoring only two points in the second half, and turning the ball over six times. The Cavs need a complete 180-degree turn from Mitchell, otherwise the season will end at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in exceedingly disappointing fashion.
While the Cavs’ vaunted backcourt has been underwhelming this post season, their front court has been just as disappointing. Evan Mobley gets a slight pass considering he is playing in his first true postseason series, but that excuse is already wearing a little thin. Jarrett Allen has looked small against New York’s physical front court of Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson, getting severely outplayed on both ends of the floor.
This is where Allen (and Mobley) get spread too thin trying to cover mistakes AND grab rebounds— Tony Pesta (@Tony_Pesta) April 24, 2023
Just not gonna happen consistently when Robinson is hunting as aggressively as he is pic.twitter.com/cyQzNuU0BX
With the Cavs relying on Allen and Mobley to be perimeter defenders as well as on the interior, they are spread too thin and away from the basket. In this clip, Robinson is left wide open under the basket to collect the offensive rebound and score an easy basket. Allen and Mobley have also given up on boards too quickly or have taken poor positions and routes to collect rebounds. There was an instance in Game 3 where Mobley did not run after a miss that appeared headed out of bounds, but Isaiah Hartenstein sprinted it down — leading to an offensive rebound and a Knicks made three from Jalen Brunson. That play was a microcosm of the Cavs this entire series — New York has played with urgency all 48 minutes.
The Cavs are in the position they are in for several reasons, but the rebounding (or lack thereof), is the most concerning one. Cleveland plays two bigs, but has lost the rebounding battle in every loss in the series. In Game 4, the Cavs allowed 17 offensive rebounds and were out-rebounded by 14 overall. That cannot happen in Game 5 if Cleveland wants any hope of extending this series beyond Wednesday.
Bench on life support
Well well well, if it isn’t another point about the Cavs bench.
It is no secret that the Cavs bench has been a glaring hole all year, made up for in the regular season by a stout starting lineup. But when the core four are not producing as needed, the bench has not been able to step up this series. Cedi Osman has a knack for bone-headed plays on the defensive end and is either ice cold or red-hot (note: he has not been red-hot). Isaac Okoro has bounced around between the starting lineup, the bench, or just not playing hardly at all. Ricky Rubio is largely unplayable. Danny Green is too old to be relied upon for more than a handful of minutes. Dean Wade, again, seems ideal to help crash the glass and stretch the floor but has not been able to do either and is therefore unplayable as well. Something has got to give with the bench.
The only reliable “bench” player is Caris LeVert, though J.B Bickerstaff has opted to start him lately instead. Sure, the core four with LeVert was a +16.2 in the regular season per Cleaning the Glass, but the playoffs are a different beast. With the second unit performing so poorly, it makes more sense to bring LeVert off bench and keep that scoring punch with the reserves. Garland and Mitchell are already ball-dominant players, but adding LeVert means there is now a third who needs the ball in his hands to be effective. With Okoro starting, at least there is a stout point-of-attack defender on the floor. Now if only he could hit a corner three…
Wanting it more
The Cavs coasted at times in the regular season, playing down to their competition and making this more difficult than they needed to. That has happened once again in this series. Cleveland has more top-end talent than the Knicks, but New York has out-hustled them in almost every way. Tom Thibodeau has them playing with a fire under them, crashing the boards and staying physical (Thibodeau has out-coached Bickerstaff, but that is a discussion for another day). The Cavs need to have that fire under them as well, with the heat cranked up to the max.