Donovan Mitchell was still wearing his game shorts and Cleveland Cavaliers' cut-off 45 minutes after the final buzzer when he entered the media room. He hadn’t found the time to tape over the Nike swoosh like he normally does after his team completed a dominant 40-point win over the Milwaukee Bucks. A game in which Mitchell only needed 26 minutes to accumulate 31 points and seven assists.
He leaned forward, shrugged his shoulders, and scrunched his forehead before answering his final question of the night.
“You’re defined most when adversity hits,” he said.
No matter where this season goes from here, it will be defined in part by how this group handled things since getting the news on Dec. 15 that they would be without the services of Darius Garland and Evan Mobley for at least a month. In that time, they’ve done nothing but win as they’re 11-3 in their last 14 contests. This includes their current six-game winning streak where they’ve amassed an otherworldly 22.7 net rating.
The Cavs were forced to change their style of play during this stretch. They’ve turned into a team that shoots the most threes and leads the league in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage since the injuries.
While tactical changes and guys stepping up in their new-found roles are the reasons why they’ve been so successful, their togetherness allowed them to take this step forward.
“When you have guys that genuinely care about each other and have each other’s backs, good things tend to happen,” Georges Niang said.
“It’s not always like that throughout the league,” Mitchell said. “To have a group that’s continuing to rise. Continue to figure themselves out and still just be able to have fun and enjoy this process through wins and losses.”
That spirit has allowed this team to accept their roles.
“Our guys have done an unbelievable job of just buying into each other and understanding what makes us different,” said Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff.
Mitchell was quick to point out that the unique personalities this team has is what makes them different.
“Everybody has their thing,” he said. “Whether it’s being funny, or a funny a**h***. Like we make fun of Max [Strus] for not smiling. We make fun of Isaac [Okoro] and myself. You can go down the list. There’s just so much within that locker room. When we were going through the ups and downs it was still easy to come to work.”
Off-court chemistry can be difficult to pinpoint, but you know it when you see it. And when it isn’t there, it’s apparent as well.
“I think you see it all over professional sports,” said Niang. “I mean, did you watch the NFL playoffs this weekend? There were teams that were really good and they’re just getting blown out. There’s something missing. And usually, that’s camaraderie.”
“It’s a long season,” Mitchell said. “And if you have a locker room that’s divided, it makes it even longer.”
“Our guys have figured out what the team looks like for this group,” Bickerstaff said. “We’ve been able to be the best team on the floor and that doesn’t mean the most talented. It doesn't mean the most gifted. But we have a center focus on being the best team every night.”
How this group looks when it’s whole again remains to be seen. But Mitchell doesn’t have concerns about that.
“We’re still not a whole unit,” said Mitchell. “The fact that DG and Ev are consistently [here] cheering. That’s tough, you know, to be out for so long, but consistently in the building and to be there speaks to the group and the energy we have.”