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The Cleveland Cavaliers saw their season end on Wednesday night with a 106-95 loss to the New York Knicks at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
All season long, the Cavs had responded well to adversity. When things didn’t go their way or they found themselves in a rough patch, they would often come out of it swinging and fighting until the problem was fixed. That was in the DNA of the team all season long, until it disappeared in the playoffs.
After going to New York and dropping two games to find themselves in a 3-1 series deficit, the Cavs took the viewpoint of just needing to win one game, at home, and go from there. In a game where the Cavs should have been the more desperate team, the Knicks appeared to want it more, which was a theme throughout the entire series.
That is inexcusable. Especially from a team that has built an identity on being tougher than its opponents. Handing out a ‘Junkyard Dawg’ chain after every win is a fun thing to do during the regular season after victories, but a team like that shouldn’t be able to be so clearly physically dominated. The Cavs looked like a team that wasn’t ready for the physicality of the playoffs in four of the five games. It was apparent on Wednesday night in the same way it was in Games 1, 3, and 4.
“I think that's a part of our learning experience to be honest with you,” Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said of the physicality of this series. “There's a new level of physicality in the playoffs. Are you doing all the things necessary through the season so that when you get to the playoffs, it's not an uncomfortable feeling when things are as physical as they are. And we go back and we watch the film and there's plenty of collisions. We just didn't win enough of them.”
Entering a playoff series as a team that features a handful of guys that haven’t been there before and needing to adjust to the physicality of it is completely understandable. Not being able to adjust to it over the course of five games is not. This team has no choice but to learn from this experience, and that’s the message that was echoed after the loss in Game 5, but this team not being physical enough or tough enough was a message sent loud and clear throughout the entirety of it.
Let’s talk about Jarrett Allen
This entire series is one that Jarrett Allen needs to learn from. There are a list of people with the Cavs to be disappointed in for what happened in this series, and Allen likely sits at the top of it. He was thoroughly outplayed by New York’s Mitchell Robinson throughout the entire series on both ends of the floor.
Allen looked like a shell of himself. The guy who was once a menacing force blocking shots and attacking the rim after setting screens or out of the dunker’s spot was turned invisible. All of that isn’t Allen’s fault, but to say he played well below his standard is more than fair. If he’s not impacting shots at the rim – which isn’t an area the Knicks really hurt the Cavs – he has to be collecting rebounds. That’s where he was at his worst.
On Wednesday night, Allen played 36 minutes and collected four rebounds. On Sunday afternoon he played 40 minutes and grabbed four boards. That’s eight rebounds in his last 76 minutes on the court, for those who struggle mathematically.
It’s not just that Allen isn’t collecting rebounds. If he’s not grabbing boards but other members of his team are, it’s far less of a problem. That was far from the case on Wednesday night and in this series. In Game 5, Robinson finished the night with 11 offensive rebounds. The most total rebounds any member of the Cavs had was Evan Mobley with nine. That’s inexcusable for Allen, Mobley, and the whole team. The Cavs were outrebounded by the Knicks in all four games they lost to New York. If that goes differently, this series probably does as well.
More from Donovan Mitchell
After the season-ending loss on Wednesday, Mitchell was in a somber mood at the podium. He’s been in the NBA for six seasons now, and been shown the door in the first or second round of the playoffs in each of those years. Mitchell has had some version of the same press conference at the end of the season every time.
The theme of his presser on Wednesday night was that he wasn’t enough this series.
“For me personally, I don't feel like I was the player I needed to be for this group,” Mitchell said. “That's what's gonna keep me up at night.”
He’s right. In this series, the Cavs needed Mitchell to be the superstar that he was all season and he wasn’t. Mitchell is likely going to finish on an All-NBA team for the first time in his career. He was phenomenal all year long and not good enough in the playoffs. Diving into the why of how it happened can take place in the coming days, but right now the focus is that he wasn’t good enough.
Mitchell is the type of player that can cover up a number of flaws. He routinely did that throughout the season but couldn’t do it in the postseason. It’s a very clear disappointment for him as a basketball player.
“I just didn't deliver like I expected myself to, my teammates and everybody expects me to. And like I said, I take that upon myself, man, like I gotta be better. Gotta be better. Everybody hates when I say that in the locker room, but it is what it is. Ultimately, I gotta be better for my guys, man.”
Mitchell’s failure in the playoffs doesn’t take away from how great he was for the Cavs this season. It doesn’t suddenly mean that the trade for him was a failure. Next year, the Cavs should find themselves back in the playoffs, and they need Mitchell to come through in a way he couldn’t this year.
Where to go from here
As painful as it is to the team, and as much as fans don’t want to hear about it, this was certainly a learning experience for a young team. Sure, Mitchell has had six of these press conferences before, but it was the first time that guys like Darius Garland and Evan Mobley have. While everyone in that locker room has things to learn from this experience, what Garland and Mobley learn from this experience might be the most important.
Those two are as much the future as Mitchell is. Garland and Mobley being better the next time the Cavs are in the playoffs is as important to the Cavs being able to advance out of the first round as better play from Mitchell is.
Those two players are regarded as guys that are as hardworking as they are talented. They’ve both improved tremendously since coming into the league. Garland will be going into his fifth season and Mobley his third next year. Expecting them to both take another jump next season isn’t outrageous, especially for Mobley.
“I mean, just how difficult everything is. It's just not easy to win playoff basketball,” Bickerstaff said when asked what he hopes Mobley takes away from this experience. “Every small thing that you do now matters from a simple thing of where you catch the ball in your offense, where you let your opponent catch the ball, where a mistake in a pick-and-roll coverage, what it can lean to. I think the details are so important and you look at whether it's individual players that are great, you look at teams that have been great, they've been great at the fundamentals of the game. And when the games are as physical as they're going to be and as intense as they're going to be, those small things make a big difference.”
Those guys taking a jump next season could put the Cavs in a much better position, one that means they’re winning a playoff series in five games rather than being quickly sent home.