Game Night Observations: A missed opportunity, a glimpse into Mobley's future, and the math problem
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Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and thelandondemand.com. You can find him on Twitter at @RealDCunningham.The Cleveland Cavaliers returned to action following the All-Star break with a 115-109 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
There are several things to unpack from this one, both good and bad, but the Cavs let a game that they probably should have won get away from them down the stretch against a championship caliber opponent. It certainly qualifies as a disappointing return to play, even if everything wasn’t bad.
At times on Thursday night, it showed ways the Cavs have developed. Evan Mobley played at a level, for part of the game, that he hadn’t seen yet this season before being held in check in the fourth quarter. The team was able to find ways to combat having a rough night from the outside by pounding the paint, until they weren’t. Earlier this season, this may have been a game the Cavs were blown out in.
It also showed where the Cavs still have room to improve. The late game offense still isn’t good enough, with the team missing seven of its final eight attempts from the floor and scoring just four points in the last 5:47 of game time. Getting the ball to Mobley wasn’t happening and the defense of the 3-point line wasn’t good enough. Later this season, and into the playoffs, this needs to be the type of game the Cavs find a way to win.
This was a game that felt like it meant a little bit more inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse than some previous regular season games have. It was a tough test against the top team in the West. It was a game that had a playoff-like atmosphere the way only a few prior games this season have.
“This is the playoffs, that's what that is. They know our plays, they know what's coming. We know their plays, we know what's coming. It's just who executes better and who finds a way,” Donovan Mitchell said after the loss. “They found a way tonight and we didn't. And that's just all about the learning process as we get better.”
The most glaring of them is that the Cavs were outscored by Denver 51-18 from beyond the 3-point arc. In today’s NBA, it’s incredibly difficult to overcome that type of difference in outside scoring. The Cavs are now 1-13 on the season when allowing an opponent to make 15 or more 3-pointers.
Whether it’s another team having a hot shooting night or poor defense on the perimeter, it’s not something the Cavs can allow to happen and expect to win games. They don’t shoot the ball well enough to make up for it. It becomes even more difficult for them when Darius Garland and Mitchell combine to shoot just 3-of-13 from beyond the arc. Add in Cedi Osman shooting 1-of-6 from deep himself and the problem only worsens.
The way for the Cavs to combat this is to dominate other teams in the painted area. In the first three quarters, they did that, outscoring Denver 60-28. In the fourth quarter the Nuggets outscored the Cavs 10-8 in that area, while also outscoring them 15-6 beyond the arc.
It’s awfully difficult to win games when that’s the case.
The Cavs have guys capable of knocking down the 3-point looks they get. Teams are starting to respect Isaac Okoro more in the corners, and he didn’t have a 3-point attempt on Thursday partially due to that. Osman will likely continue to be up and down, the Cavs are also counting on Dean Wade to fill part of that void, too. But on nights when Garland and Mitchell are as inefficient as they were from deep on Thursday, overcoming it is going to be a challenge.
Let’s talk about Evan Mobley
The first three quarters of this game were arguably the best performance that Mobley has had on an NBA floor. He was nothing short of dominant. He was able to do whatever he wanted offensively while also being a terror defensively. It was a glimpse into what his future should look like, and a scary one at that.
He had everything working on the offensive end of the floor while being the best defensive player on it, too. The instant thought is that his game against the Bucks earlier this season was the best he’s played, but this felt like he was at a different level. He was doing things differently and more on his own than he previously had on his best nights. That’s a big deal in his development. Not because he won’t have guys that set him up in great spots, Garland, Mitchell, Ricky Rubio, and even Caris LeVert will all do that. But there are going to be moments when Mobley has to be able to take over a game without the help of being put in the place to succeed.
In spurts, he showed that on Thursday.
The problem was that he wasn’t put into those spots in the fourth quarter, and didn’t figure out how to create them himself, either.
In the first three quarters, Mobley scored 31 points. He finished the night with 31 points.
“They started fronting him a little bit, they started trying to be physical,” Garland said of trying to get Mobley the basketball. “But we gotta look for him a lot more in the fourth quarter when it comes down to crunch time.”
In the fourth quarter Mobley played more minutes than any other member of the Cavs but only took two shots. On a night when he had things going as well as he did offensively, that’s a problem.
“There's different things you can point to, but I think the biggest thing is we’ve got to get Ev the ball,” Mitchell said. “Yes, I'm here to kind of be that closer and DG is as well. But we have to find ways to get him going and continue to keep him going and that's on us.”
Danny Green update
The Cavaliers signed veteran wing Danny Green the day before the All-Star break after he was bought out by the Houston Rockets as a piece to provide depth and 3-point shooting. That alone can make it puzzling why he didn’t play on a night when the Cavs struggled so mightily in that area.
“It's just trying to figure out the right timing to get him in, giving guys who have been playing those minutes, and there's always the wait with him, the back-to-backs and those things as well,” head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said after the game. “So, we're just trying to find the rhythm and the right timing to get him his minutes.”
Not finding minutes for Green was interesting on Thursday. He spent a decent amount of time during the second quarter back in the tunnel, presumably warming up for potential game action. As Green is coming off of an ACL tear suffered during last season’s playoffs with Philadelphia, he’s not going to be a guy that can be counted on for 25 minutes night in and night out right now. That’s not a fair ask.
But on a night when Osman was struggling from deep, and the Cavs could have used a boost on the wing, Green would have made sense in theory. Only time will tell if he has minutes when the Cavs play Friday night in Atlanta.