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The season for the Cleveland Cavaliers abruptly ended on Wednesday night after a Game 5 loss to the New York Knicks in the first round of the playoffs. The regular season was unquestionably a success that brought forth expectations of getting out of the first round.
Instead, the Cavs being sent home after just five games is rather jarring. It’s not something that was predicted by many. This roster is one that always had holes, but those weaknesses were exploited in a way that was eye-opening.
Some weaknesses loomed larger than others did throughout the series, but ultimately, who is to blame for the quick dismissal in the playoffs? It’s certainly not just one person, it’s a combination of people that had disappointing playoff performances.
Allen went from someone that was a real positive for the Cavs throughout the entire season to a guy that was borderline unplayable in this series. With the exception of Game 2, Allen essentially had his lunch money stolen by Knicks big man Mitchell Robinson.
Robinson is one of the best offensive rebounders in the NBA, without question, but he should never have been able to dominate the Cavs frontline the way that he did.
In Game 1, Jarrett Allen was a little underwhelming but OK. The offensive rebounding in that game was more of a team issue than it was one specific to Allen. In Game 2, Allen was physical with the Knicks and dominated the game in a way that maybe doesn’t show up in the box score.
After that, Allen turned into a shell of himself. He had 13 total rebounds after Game 2 in 113 minutes on the floor. In that same span, Robinson had 23 offensive rebounds (36 total) in 93 minutes.
That should never happen.
There’s an argument that Allen wasn’t put into position to succeed. There were times where he helped too far off Robinson that led to better offensive rebounding opportunities for New York. Whether or not that is his fault or a philosophical issue from the coaching staff is a conversation to be had.
The Cavs needed their Allen to do all the little things he did for the team throughout the regular season. He didn’t show up the way he needed to when the Cavs needed him.
“Even for me, the lights were brighter than expected,” Allen said in his exit interview with the media on Thursday.
That shouldn’t have been the case for someone in their third trip to the playoffs.
Bickerstaff had a rough series against the Knicks and that’s putting it lightly. He was thoroughly outcoached by New York’s Tom Thibodeau and made a few questionable decisions of his own. Ultimately, Bickerstaff can’t go out there and make jumpers or grab rebounds, but it can be argued that the team wasn’t given the best gameplan or put in the best position to succeed.
Changing up the starting lineup after the only win of the series in Game 2 was something that was certainly a risk and didn’t work. Continuing to play Ricky Rubio in Games 3 and 4 after it went very poorly in Game 1 was a decision that didn’t pay off. Having point guard Darius Garland open up Games 4 and 5 defending New York star Jalen Brunson is still puzzling, and led to Brunson’s best first quarters of the entire series.
This bad series doesn’t mean that Bickerstaff will never be a good playoff coach, but it illustrated that he isn’t quite there yet. The Cavs have to hope that this has been a learning experience for him in the same way that it has been for some of the younger players.
This was supposed to be the series that Mitchell stepped up and showed why the Cavs traded so many assets for him last September. All season long, when the Cavs needed him to be the one to put the team on his back and carry them over the finish line to wins he was able to do it. When the team needed him to defer to Darius Garland or Evan Mobley he was able to do that, too.
In this series against the Knicks, Mitchell was far from the first-team All-NBA candidate he was during the regular season. The Cavs needed so much more than they got from Mitchell. He couldn’t cover up nearly as many warts on the roster as he did during the regular season.
To Mitchell’s credit, he repeatedly owned that fact after bad performances. After a putrid Game 4 he talked about how bad he was to reporters on the scene, after the series was over he continuously spoke about not showing up for his team the way they needed him to.
Was he putting too much of the blame on himself? Maybe. But the Cavs did need him to do those things. If Mitchell played during this series the way he did during the regular season, they may be the ones moving on to play the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Smei-Finals.
The trade deadline came and went and the Cavs sat out. It was the first time since Altman became the franchise’s lead decision maker that the Cavs didn’t make a trade. Not making a deal was a bet on Isaac Okoro continuing the hot shooting that he had displayed over the stretch prior to the trade deadline.
The Cavs needed more on the wing than they had on this roster. It’s a group that has a great amount of top end talent, but also is a little short on depth, particularly on the wing, which is the premium position right now in the NBA. Whether or not there was a deal the Cavs passed on that would have helped the team in this series isn’t a verifiable fact.
This roster isn’t good enough to win a title right now. That’s fine. That wasn’t the goal for this season. Thinking they could was always an unrealistic thing. The roster was good enough to get past the first round, however. That’s why Altman deserves a chunk of the blame, but not the lion’s share of it.
This series could serve as a jumping off point for Mobley. The options for him are to learn from this experience and grow from it or to let it define him. With the hopes the Cavs have for Mobley’s career, it’s clear which direction they expect him to take.
But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Mobley didn’t play his best in this series against the Knicks. Defensively, he was fine. He limited New York’s Julius Randle on the offensive end of the floor. How much of that was because of Randle’s ankle issue he entered the series with is not known, but Mobley still does deserve credit.
Offensively, Mobley learned how much more he needs to improve. Over the second half of the season, Mobley was terrific offensively, averaging 18 points per game on 56 percent shooting in his last 41 games (excluding his final game of the season in which he played just 12 minutes). In the series against the Knicks, he was pushed around on that end of the floor, struggled to get to his spots, and couldn’t find his usual touch when he did have the ball in comfortable spots. That was a big issue for the Cavs.
Mobley took a big jump from his first season in the NBA to his second season. This series showed him and the Cavs that his jump from year two to next year must be even greater and needs to be on the offensive end of the floor.
There were moments in this series where Garland was terrific against the Cavs. In Game 2, he was the best player on the floor for either team. In Game 4, Garland’s third quarter explosion brought the Cavs back from down as many as 15 points in the first half to give them a lead.
It wasn’t that Garland played bad in this series – except for in Game 3 – it’s that he wasn’t consistently playing aggressive enough. The Cavs needed him to impact the game more frequently than he did.
For this being Garland’s first time in the playoffs, the results weren’t terrible, but they certainly weren’t good enough, either.
After those six, it becomes hard to place blame on individuals. Did Ricky Rubio play poorly in the series? Yes. But did he play enough to place significant blame on him? That’s not entirely fair. There are few guys on the roster that are blameless in all of this.