The Cleveland Cavaliers needed to switch things up. Reeling from three straight losses, including two since the All-Star Break, the Cavaliers entered Sunday’s contest against the Raptors with a chance to right the ship. But the game started hours before with a meeting of the minds between Donovan Mitchell and Coach Bickerstaff.
According to Chris Fedor of cleveland.com, the coach and player met to before the Raptors game to, as Fedor explained, “set the tone.” The Cavs’ lone All-Star evidently got the message. In just three quarters of work, Mitchell managed a team-high 35 points.
Afterward, Bickerstaff gushed with praise.
“Whenever the lights shine brightest, Donovan shows up,” Bickerstaff said postgame. “He gives us a guy who can take over at games. We trust him and he got it done.”
The Cavs’ 118-93 blowout also served as a chance to rest some starters late. Mitchell didn’t come back in after the third quarter. Ricky Rubio, Dean Wade, and Caris LeVert each got 20-plus minutes.
It was simply a get-right game for Cleveland against an opponent in Toronto that is much further down in the standings, but presented several prickly matchup problems.
Rubio Blasts Cavs’ Recent Lack of Intensity
As noted, the Cavs have slumbered out of the gate since the All-Star Break. A reminder: this is precisely where the wheels fell off on Cleveland’s season last year, with injuries to Darius Garland, Rubio, and Jarrett Allen derailing one of the league’s come-from-nowhere teams.
This season, the Cavs are saddled with more talent in the form of Mitchell. But after last year’s breakout, they’re also weighed down by expectations.
Those expectations might have caused Cleveland to come out flat after the break. Rubio, when asked if Cleveland has demonstrated the right level of intensity for this time of the season, kept it honest with reporters over the weekend.
“Not really,” Rubio told Fedor. “We have to figure that out. We came out of the All-Star break and this is where you start turning it on for the playoffs. It’s something we have to figure out sooner than later.”
Rubio also drew a stark contrast between Thursday’s gutsy loss to the West’s top-seeded Denver Nuggets and Friday’s blowout loss to the Hawks.
“Last night we played a really good game. Tonight, was one of the worst performances of the season. We take pride in our defense, we’re the No. 1 defense, and they scored almost 140 points in the game and 81 points at the half. That can’t happen. Need to be better,” Rubio lamented.
If anyone knows what this time of the season requires, it’s Mitchell and recent Cavs addition Danny Green. Both have serious playoff experience that the rest of the starting five lacks.
In the coming weeks, the Cavs will likely lean on those stars to set the team’s tone night to night, much like Mitchell did on Sunday.
Green Calls Out NBA’s ‘Hostile Environments’
Green, for his part, is already doing his part to prepare the youngsters of what to expect.
“Hostile environments. Every play, every possession is going to be intense,” Green explained.
The playoff stage can be daunting for even the most experienced playoff veterans. But outside of Mitchell, who earned significant playoff experience with the Utah Jazz, the Cavs’ young core is just that: young and inexperienced.
Green’s advice: enjoy it.
“You’ve got to embrace it, lose yourself in the moment, lose yourself in the game,” Green explained. “At the same time, be on your P’s and Q’s, execute the best you can and doing your job. Not letting yourself down, your teammates down. We’re going to expect the most out of each other. Just making sure that everybody can embrace the moment and be ready for a hostile environment.”
The Cavs will enter one of those “hostile environments” on Wednesday, as they go to Boston to take on the Celtics.