Game Night Observations: A horrid third quarter and a lack of bench production
You must have an active subscription to read this story.
Click Here to subscribe Now!
Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and thelandondemand.com. You can find him on Twitter at @RealDCunningham. The Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Boston Celtics 117-113 on Wednesday night.
In the first half, the Cavaliers looked like a team that was locked in and ready to compete in front of a national audience against a team near the top of the NBA.
Then, the third quarter happened.
Given the circumstances, it was one of the more disappointing quarters the Cavs have played lately. They were outscored by the Celtics 41-26. The Cavs allowed Boston to make 6-of-7 3-point attempts, outrebound them 15-4, and totally take control of the game, pushing a lead out to 21 points at its apex.
Boston is the better team and has been for most of the season. They’re a team that the Cavs are aiming to be in the future. They’re not there yet, and expecting them to be on the level of a team that’s fresh off a trip to The Finals and has seen its two young stars play in a pair of other Eastern Conference Finals together in the first year of having Mitchell on the roster isn’t a fair expectation in what today’s Eastern Conference looks like.
That definitely provides context, but it doesn’t make the result on Wednesday any less disappointing. The Cavs lost this game because the Celtics are the better team and knocked down 16 3-pointers. On the season, the Cavs are 1-15 in games where their opponent makes 15 or more shots from beyond the arc. When the opponent makes 43 percent of its 3-pointers or better, the Cavs are 3-18. Boston made 50 percent of them on Wednesday.
It wasn’t as if the Cavs gave up a bunch of uncontested looks from deep to great volume shooters. Some of them were open, sure, but more of them seemed to be contested well and the Celtics just hit tough shots. That happens sometimes in the NBA, especially against the best teams in the league. When Boston has a good shooting night from forward Al Horford, they’re really difficult to beat. They’ve lost just once this season in the 15 games Horford has made three or more 3-pointers. He hit six of them on Wednesday.
Allowing 41 points in a quarter the way the Cavs did on Wednesday is something that surely is unacceptable. As wild as it sounds, the offense may have actually been more of a problem than the defense was.
The only bright spot to the quarter was the play of Donovan Mitchell. He had 19 points in the quarter while the rest of the team had just seven. That’s a major problem. The Cavs have to receive more production from the rest of the roster than just Mitchell. Darius Garland had a great start to the game, a rough middle, and a terrific finish. Evan Mobley didn’t have a great night offensively, finishing just 6-of-15 from the floor. Jarrett Allen had just five points, and Isaac Okoro didn’t make a 3-pointer.
Mitchell and Garland combining to go for 73 points is terrific, but with the lack of bench production the Cavs are getting right now, the other three starters need to score more than 26 points.
About that bench…
The Cavaliers didn’t make any upgrades at the trade deadline, instead liking the group that they have. It’s unknown exactly what the cost of certain players the Cavs were interested in would have been, but the team made the choice to stand pat on opportunities to bolster bench scoring. That’s not necessarily why the Cavs lost this game entirely, but the lack of production from the bench certainly plays into it.
On Wednesday night, the Cavs essentially played a rotation of eight guys, with Dean Wade, Ricky Rubio, and Caris LeVert coming off the bench. Cedi Osman played five minutes in the third quarter, while Wade and Rubio saw their second half playing time cut very short.
LeVert had an inefficient night with 10 points on 11 shots, but provided six rebounds and three assists, too. He wasn’t great, but he wasn’t horrible, either.
Rubio only played seven minutes on Wednesday, made his only shot, but didn’t play much in the second half.
Wade played 15 minutes, didn’t score and collected one rebound. He attempted just two shots in his time out there. If Wade is going to play that much, he has to be a threat to opposing defenses. Shooting only a pair of 3-pointers in 15 minutes isn’t going to get the job done, especially because it’s not as if Wade has a strong gravitational pull that opens up the floor for the rest of the offense to work. He’s not ignored by opposing defenses by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s not treated like Kyle Korver in his prime, either.
If Wade isn’t going to space the floor, those minutes may be better served elsewhere. Yes, Wade still provides the size that others on the bench can’t, but the spacing may be more important. Osman certainly is always going to be a willing shooter, and newly acquired Danny Green will be, too. As the rotation shrinks with the playoff nearing, having the bench players be productive in the limited time they’re out there is essential. The Cavs didn’t have that on Wednesday and it cost them.
Donovan Mitchell’s brilliance
Mitchell didn’t have a great first half of this one, which is partially why the Cavs were trailing Boston at halftime. He was the biggest reason why the team was able to have any hope in the fourth quarter, though.
Mitchell had 29 of his 44 points in the second half. He played nearly the entire time, only checking out for 71 seconds in the fourth quarter, before checking back in once the Cavs cut Boston’s lead down to seven in the final 25 seconds.
The worry is that he played more than 43 minutes in a game in which the Cavs trailed by double digits for the majority of the second half and had a play in which he grabbed at his leg during the third quarter.
Mitchell, who has missed time this season with a groin injury, is the most vital piece of the Cavs roster. If he has to miss time causing the Cavaliers to slip below fifth place in the Eastern Conference, it’s bad news for the Cavs. If he were to have to miss any time in the playoffs, the Cavs wouldn’t be in the playoffs for very long.
Fighting until the end
Culture can only take a roster so far and culture cannot make open jump shots. That’s obvious. But it’s also a good sign that when the Cavs do fall behind in games like this that they continue to fight back. It’s best they don’t continue to bury themselves in what ultimately turn out to be insurmountable holes, though.
The Cavs don’t give up. It’s easy to lie down when trailing by 20 points in the fourth quarter. A guy like Mitchell doesn’t have to play the whole time in what looks like a blowout loss. It says a lot about not only the team, but Mitchell as well that he stays out there. It’s not something that’s meaningless for the best player on the team to keep at it even when the probability of a win becomes as slim as it did on Wednesday night.
Maybe that doesn’t pay off with wins and losses, but it’s hard to think that it’s completely meaningless, either.