Game Night Observations: The Correct Response, Shrinking The Rotation, And The Playoff Picture

Game Night Observations: The correct response, shrinking the rotation, and the playoff picture

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

The Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Toronto Raptors 118-93 on Sunday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

This was a win the Cavaliers needed after the way the team was blown out by the Hawks on Friday night in Atlanta. More importantly, it was the response the team needed to put on display. It wasn’t just that the team needed a win, it was the team needing this type of win.

The Raptors have been a tough matchup for the Cavs this season, winning the first three matchups. Sure, Sunday was the second day of a back-to-back for them, but that shouldn’t make this one feel any differently for the Cavs.

The Cavs needed a game where they looked dominant. They needed a game where both Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland played really well. They needed a game where they suffocated an opponent defensively, the way they’re accustomed to doing. They needed a game where they shot the ball well from the outside.

All those boxes were checked on Sunday night.

Mitchell and Garland were both fantastic, on both ends of the floor. Mitchell led all scorers with 35 points and didn’t play in the fourth quarter. Garland had 18 points and 11 assists while playing 34 minutes of turnover-free basketball. The Cavs outscored the Raptors by 39 points in the 34 minutes Garland was on the floor. That duo, which combined to shoot just 3-of-13 from 3-point range in Thursday’s loss against Denver, made 11 of their 16 3-point attempts.

When that pairing plays as well as they did on Sunday night, the Cavaliers are going to be incredibly difficult to beat, whether that be in the regular season or come playoff time. Whether this can be consistent from them when it counts is yet to be seen, but those two having strong performances on a night the Cavs badly needed it was a good sign.

There have been plenty of disappointing nights for the Cavs this season. The loss on Friday night in Atlanta, and the way it happened, ranks near the worst of them. What the Cavaliers have done well is respond to it. In a sense, that’s what made Friday so surprising after a loss on Thursday night because they didn’t respond to disappointment well. Sunday, they did, and Mitchell and Garland were a big reason why.

Smaller rotation

When the Cavaliers went on their seven-game winning streak earlier this month, one of the things that was part of it was a shortened rotation for the Cavaliers. In the two games since the All-Star break, the rotation had expanded a bit, featuring minutes both Lamar Stevens and Cedi Osman. Typically, it had been one or the other. On Sunday night, neither of them played meaningful minutes.
Until the game was out of reach, the Cavs only played their five starters plus Ricky Rubio, Caris LeVert, and Dean Wade.

That is going to more closely resemble what things look like for the Cavaliers when the playoffs roll around. Mitchell, Garland, Evan Mobley, and Jarrett Allen are all going to have to play big minutes. Filling out the rest of the rotation is still a work in progress. It’s fair to assume that Rubio and LeVert will both be part of it, but whether it’s an eight-man rotation or a nine-man rotation and who those minutes go to is up for grabs.

Wade’s playing time has been up and down since he’s returned from injury. There hasn’t been a game in that time in which Wade hasn’t played, but how much he’s been on the court hasn’t been consistent. Wade played 25 minutes on Sunday, but that included the whole fourth quarter, in which the Cavs held a 20-point lead for the majority of it. In the last five games before Sunday, Wade played 11 minutes of fewer in each.

Those minutes could go a number of ways. It could be Wade or it could be some combination of Osman, Stevens, or Danny Green. All of them provide something different on the court, and what the Cavaliers need from that spot can change either nightly or from series to series in the playoffs.

With Wade, he should provide shooting and size, at least theoretically. In his last five games, Wade hasn’t been firing away from beyond the 3-point arc the way the Cavaliers need to out of his minutes. In the five games prior to tonight, Wade has only shot seven 3-pointers. On Sunday night he took five of them, but four of those five came once the game was out of reach.

When Wade is on the floor, he needs to shoot the ball whenever he’s open. If he’s passing up open shots, he’s not as useful to the Cavs as he could be. He can still provide other things, but the spacing he can provide is what the Cavs need the most. It’s something Stevens can’t provide, while Osman is inconsistent, and Green is still a bit of an unknown to this team.

The playoff picture and what’s ahead

After the win on Sunday night the Cavaliers now sit at 39-25 on the season with 18 games remaining. That means the Cavs have to go 11-7 to reach 50 wins on the season, and with the second-easiest schedule remaining in the NBA, that’s a reasonable goal. If that does happen, finishing with a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference would be all but a lock.

As play finishes on Sunday, the Cavaliers have a magic number of 18 to clinch home court in the first round. Their lead over fifth-place Brooklyn is at three games, and the lead is the same over the sixth-place Knicks, who are percentage points behind the Nets in the standings. The Cavs still have two games left in Brooklyn and one game left at home against the Knicks later in the season, but should feel pretty good about holding on to fourth as of right now. According to Tankathon, the Nets have the sixth-most difficult schedule remaining, while the Knicks have the ninth-most difficult schedule.

As for sticking in the top six and being guaranteed a playoff series, the Cavaliers have a magic number of 15 with Miami currently sitting in seventh place. The Heat are 5.5 games behind the Cavaliers at 32-29. It would take an absolutely catastrophic finish by the Cavaliers to miss the playoffs.

The next week for the Cavaliers will be an interesting one. Two of their next three games are against the Boston Celtics, with one game on the road and one game at home. The Cavs did beat Boston twice earlier in the season, with both wins coming in overtime.

After that, the Cavaliers go to Miami for a pair of games and have one final matchup with Philadelphia at home on March 15. Following that, only four of the final 10 games for the Cavs come against teams that are about .500 on the season, with two of those in Brooklyn, which is just 2-6 since trading away Kyrie Irving (and later Kevin Durant) earlier this month. The other two games are in Atlanta and the home game against the Knicks.

Whether the Cavaliers will play well enough to climb up the standings isn’t something that can realistically be predicted after how the first three games following the break have gone, but they’re still in a really good place.