CLEVELAND — Attention to detail.
That has been a key phrase for the Cleveland Cavaliers as they have made their playoff push and prepared for the differences between the regular season and the postseason. As a group, they have been trying to watch and understand the history of the playoffs, and just how things can change in the postseason. Even with a younger group where not everyone has experienced the playoffs before, the Cavs are trying to equip their guys for the experiences coming.
It’s also the message Donovan Mitchell has been sharing with guys who have not been to the postseason before. The importance of details. Doing the little things. The significance of each instance.
“Whether it’s offensive execution or defensive execution,” Mitchell said Friday morning at shootaround. “Rebounding. If we see these guys, rebounding is going to be probably the top thing because, at the end of the day, we’re both talented teams defensively. It’s going to be who gets those extra possessions in a playoff series and have to find a way to keep their guys off the glass and keep them out of the paint. Make it tough on them. Then on the offensive end, execute, hit the open man, take the right shots, and make sure we get to our spots.”
That’s where the Cavs struggled in their 130-116 loss to the New York Knicks Friday night. They struggled to contain Jalen Brunson, who scored a career-high 48 points, shooting 18 of 32 from the field and 7 of 12 from 3. They were out-rebounded in total 48-33, and Mitchell Robinson had nine offensive rebounds alone. The Cavs only had three offensive rebounds, limiting second-chance opportunities for Cleveland to score, and the Knicks took advantage of grabbing those defensive rebounds and getting out in transition. The Cavs only had six total second-chance points compared to the Knicks’ 14.
The Cavs didn’t match the level of intensity and effort the Knicks brought. For a team with the best defensive rating in the league — and has been one of the top defenses this season — the Cavs didn’t execute well defensively and didn’t showcase the extra efforts.
The Cavs have preached the different elements of playoff basketball and the importance of experiencing those aspects, and Friday’s game was an example of everything the Cavs have been talking about.
“I just don’t think we made enough plays to get it done,” coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “One of the things that I thought we really struggled with was letting one play impact the next play. And again, understanding how important possessions are. Like you can’t afford to have that happen, and I thought that happened to us too many times tonight as well.”
The Cavs understand what is at stake. A win on Friday over the Knicks would have clinched home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. While that is still possible in the final four games of the season, Friday night’s matchup against the Knicks did have higher stakes. It was also the most recent look at their potential playoff matchup in the first round.
What they can take away from Friday’s loss is the reminder of how important the details are, as well as the overall level of physicality.
“I speak for myself and my mistakes; we come out of a timeout, I give up a Josh Hart three, and then they go going a little run, we got to call timeout,” Mitchell said. “Changes the whole game. End of the half, Mitchell Robertson gets a tip in, I think it was the half or quarter or whatever; Mitchell Robertson gets a tip-in changes the complexity of the whole game. There’s so many different things down the line. Miscommunication between me and Mar, Jalen Brunson hits a three. Like that. Those are the little things, the little details that can’t happen.”
DIMES & DUNKS@evanmobley | #LetEmKnow pic.twitter.com/88GNJHzuEl
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) April 1, 2023
In the playoffs, it’s about knowing the tendencies of each player on the other side. It’s about getting to exact spots on the floor on defense. It’s about setting screens in the right spot. And it’s about understanding the importance of each possession and the level of play needed for each possession.
Yet, the Cavs are holding onto the belief that they can use Friday’s game as an example to learn and prepare for the playoffs. Mitchell said it would serve the Cavs as a solid film session for future preparation, especially if their first-round matchup ends up being the Knicks.
“We keep putting ourselves in situations, as a young group who hasn’t been anywhere or done anything yet together,” Bickerstaff said. “And these are moments that you have to learn from. They are failures that frustrate you and piss you off. But, at the end of the day, and I believe in our guys, that they’ll take the right message from this and understand what’s on the line and what’s at stake, and what you have to be willing to do to win in these moments.”
And Darius Garland believes they can use their shortcomings from Friday night to be better because they’ve done so before. After the early season West Coast trip when the Cavs dropped close games to the Clippers, Warriors and Kings, and then lost at home to Minnesota, they realized they had the potential to compete and beat teams. They established an expectation that they could make the playoffs. Then, the Cavs worked through a tough January schedule when they finished the month 8-8, the only month this season that they did not have a winning record.
“We’ve been through a lot, and we overcame a lot, so I know that we’ll be straight,” Garland said. “It’s a lot of adversity throughout this entire season, and we had our back against the wall plenty of times, and we never just backed down from it. So I know this group is always ready for a challenge. If we see these guys, it’s going to be a challenge, and we’re going to try to punch first and see what they do.”
There are just about two weeks before the playoffs start. The Cavs have four games left in the regular season. They can turn these examples into experience in a playoff series with the right mentality and focus on the attention to detail.
“Just coming with the mentality just to kill, really,” Garland said. “I mean, that’s what it really is in the playoffs. It’s really one-on-one. Whoever wins their match up, that’s the winner of that night, I believe. Whatever team plays harder and gets as many stops and tries to take care of the ball as much as you can and try to get a good quality possession every possession, that’s the playoffs, I believe.”
(Photo of Donovan Mitchell driving to the basket against the Knicks: Ken Blaze USA Today)
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