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Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and thelandondemand.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @RealDCunningham.
In order to be taken to heart, advice is something that often has to be sought out by someone hoping to learn rather than having it handed out unsolicited. As the Cleveland Cavaliers enter the playoffs for the first time since 2018, they’re filled with guys both seeking it out and guys qualified to on it to the younger players that haven’t been there before.
Some of the younger players that haven’t been there before – Darius Garland, Evan Mobley, and Isaac Okoro – have the ability to draw back on their experience from last year’s play-in tournament to simulate what Saturday and beyond may look like. Those moments were important and large, but they’re also different than what should be expected on Saturday night and throughout the rest of this playoff run.
They also have a locker room full of veterans that have been willing to share their past experiences with them.
“We've been talking, having a lot of conversations about playoffs, guys that's already been there, coaches as well,” Mobley said. “Anybody in the program honestly that's been in the playoffs or been far just spilling their knowledge and just trying to soak it all up.”
There is plenty of that in the locker room for the Cavs, both from players that play heavy minutes as well as guys that don’t. Having a player like Danny Green who has played in 165 career playoff games or Donovan Mitchell who has played in 39 of his own can only help to prepare the guys that haven’t been there before.
The ups and downs of the playoffs are one of the things that the newcomers need to be prepared for the most. There’s often talk of how the game slows down and possessions matter more. When talk of the playoffs begins, that’s consistently the first thing that is brought up. Things like that are widely known not just by those playing the games, but by those watching them too. What’s less well known is how to deal with the mental side of things.
“It's a roller coaster,” Garland said. “We had a conversation a couple
days ago actually, they said when you get the first win or you get a win, it feels like the best thing ever. Then when you lose, it's like the worst thing ever. So, I mean it's going to be a rollercoaster, but you just have to keep
That’s something that has stuck with guys from the playoff battles they’ve had in the past. Ricky Rubio hasn’t played in that many playoff games throughout his career, but it’s what he remembers from his first trip to the postseason from his time in Utah.
“We played OKC, first game and the crowd was crazy and we lost the first game and it seemed like the end of the world. Then we won the second one and it seems like we were champions. So, the feelings, emotions going to go out of the roof more than usual, more than regular season games, and we have to control that because you can't really go too high or too low because it keeps going.”
How teams respond from those low moments is important. For the Cavs, how one player in particular responds to his own low moment in last year’s postseason may be the most important thing.
While in Utah, Mitchell had a bad first round series against the Dallas Mavericks. Dallas, without All-NBA guard Luka Doncic for part of the series, dismissed the Jazz in six games. Mitchell averaged 25.5 points per game but shot just 39.8 percent from the field and 20.8 percent from 3-point range all while being relentlessly targeted on the defensive end of the floor, particularly by Jalen Brunson, now a member of the New York Knicks. That’s not the only time he’s been on the bad side of a playoff result, either.
“To be honest, watching those games, I'll never forget just sitting there watching the rest of these first round games and I’m just like, ‘Man, we're done,’” Mitchell said when asked what sticks with him from last postseason. “And I told these guys when we first started, you don't want to be sitting in the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos or wherever you are going and thinking, ‘Man, I should have got this offensive rebound, or I should have gotten that one stop.’ You don't want to get up 3-1 and then lose. I've done that too. All we needed was one game. Been up 2-0 and lost four straight. So, there's different things I’ve experienced that are heartbreaking and obviously last year was definitely hard as well.”
Having all of those experiences for Mitchell has helped to change him from someone that’s had so learn from others about the postseason to someone that’s handing out advice and leading conversations about what it’s like in these moments.
Part of the reason it’s easy to view this team as one that’s ready for a stage as big as the playoffs is the openness they’ve had in discussing their goals and the quest they’re about to embark on.
“This is the most for sure that I've been on a team where we kinda discuss the playoffs and discuss winning championships,” Caris LeVert said. “We've got a young team here. Three of our starting five hasn't played in the playoffs. Sixty percent, over half of our starting five hasn't played in the playoffs, so it's important. Obviously, you've gotta live those lessons, but it's important to communicate them as much as you can before you get there.”
There’s no telling how far the Cavs will go in the playoffs this season. They have to go out and win the games on the court. These conversations they’ve had can only take them so far. But the conversations they’ve had are one of the more important steps they could have taken in getting ready for the start of a run.