Playoff Takeaways: Donovan Mitchell's Bad Afternoon

Playoff Takeaways: Donovan Mitchell's bad afternoon

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Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and You can follow him on Twitter at @RealDCunningham.


The Cleveland Cavaliers find themselves in a 3-1 hole in the first round against the New York Knicks after a 102-93 loss on Sunday afternoon in New York.


Here are four takeaways from the loss


Donovan Mitchell’s no show


Donovan Mitchell played his worst game as a member of the Cavs at the worst possible time. There’s no other way to look at things.


Mitchell finished the afternoon with 11 points, the fewest total points of any Cleveland starter, on 5-of-18 shooting and he missed all four 3-point attempts that he took. Nothing was working for him, whether it was attacking the rim, creating space on the outside, or playing defense. In a moment when the Cavs needed their franchise player to step up and shine under the brightest of lights, Mitchell didn’t.


All season long, whenever the Cavs have needed Mitchell to step up and take complete and total control of a game, he’s been able to put the team on his back and carry them where they needed to go. On Sunday afternoon he had just two points in the second half while shooting 1-of-9. Whether he was taking good shots and just missing them or if he was trying to do too much is up for debate. It will require a deeper dive to figure out exactly why this type of performance happened, but ultimately Mitchell didn’t come up big when the Cavs needed him to most.


There were a lot of things that went wrong for the Cavs. They were out-hustled, out-coached, and out-played. Whether or not those things should happen in the playoffs as consistently as they have in this series is a different conversation, but Mitchell is supposed to cover up a lot of things that go wrong for the Cavs. Him coming up short in this moment made all of those things look worse. For the Cavs to win when Mitchell has a bad night, things have to go perfectly.


Mitchell has had bad games in the past. Every player in the NBA has. He’ll have bad games in the future. It happens. But to see it happen on this stage, when his team needed him the most is surprising and disappointing.


The coaching battle


Throughout this series Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has been out-coached by Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau.


Bickerstaff made nice adjustments going into Game 2, but has since had a tough time figuring things out.


The Cavs shifted their starting lineup after Game 2, replacing Isaac Okoro with Caris LeVert as a way to put more offense on the floor. LeVert’s play in Game 2 was a big reason why the Cavs won in the fashion they did. That move hasn’t worked, as the starting lineup has struggled early on in each of the last two games.

In Game 3, the Cavs scored just 17 first quarter points and 32 points in the first half. On Sunday, they were trailing by seven points after the first and by nine at halftime. Maybe the slow starts aren’t all because of the starting lineup being different, but it’s entirely fair to think that it plays into things.


The biggest difference at the start of Game 4 from Game 3 was that LeVert was defending Knicks forward RJ Barrett instead of Jalen Brunson, who was defended by Darius Garland. That led to Brunson having his best opening quarter of the series, Garland getting into early foul trouble, and Barrett continuing his strong play from Game 3.


That adjustment seemed to be complete unnecessary for the Cavs, which has been a theme of this series. The Knicks have certainly made some smart adjustments throughout this series, but they haven’t done many things that have forced the hands of the Cavs. These are things the Cavs have done to themselves.


That’s a coaching issue. This roster is certainly flawed, and those flaws have been exposed during this series, but the coaching hasn’t helped to minimize them in anyway.


The good stuff


The best the Cavs looked on Sunday was during the third quarter. They outscored the Knicks 26-19 in the period and opened up by making their first seven shots and got Garland going. After being down by nine at the break, the Cavs led by as many as three points during the third quarter.


They did this partially because they took Garland off the ball. At the start of the quarter they elected to use LeVert as the point guard while shifting Garland to the shooting guard and Mitchell up to the small forward. That move was a smart one that helped to create more room for Garland with the basketball in his hands and the ability to attack a defense that already had to move around, rather than one that could focus on him walking the ball up the floor.


Helping find a groove for Garland was the biggest reason the Cavs were able to get back into the game. In the first half, he played just 13 minutes due to some foul trouble and had two points on 1-of-5 shooting. In the second half Garland had 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting and seven assists with zero turnovers.


The Knicks wanting it more


Throughout Game 4 it looked clear that the Knicks were the team that wanted it more. They had a greater sense of urgency, attention to detail, and effort level. New York tracked down 17 offensive rebounds on Sunday afternoon, the same number as they did in Game 1.


That’s inexcusable in the playoffs. The Cavs are the team in this series that has more high end talent, but they’re down 3-1 because that talent hasn’t been good enough and because the Knicks have wanted it more.