Game Night Observations: Stevens saving the day, Mitchell's will to win, and Mobley's big night
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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 defeated the Boston Celtics 118-114 in overtime on Monday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
It wasn’t necessarily a win the Cavs can feel great about. It wasn’t a win that looked particularly good. It wasn’t a win that should have required overtime against a team that played a double overtime game on Sunday night and was without three starters.
But most importantly for the Cavs, it was a win. It was a win the team badly needed to keep pace in what has become a frantic race for seeding in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
The Cavaliers struggled, once again, defending the 3-point arc in the first half as Boston made 13 of the 25 3-pointers attempted. The Celtics were seemingly able to get whatever they wanted and the Cavs couldn’t entirely keep up on the offensive end of the floor. It was slightly jarring but at the same time felt familiar to the way games against other teams sitting their best players had gone previously. It was almost as if the Cavs were re-living the nightmare of their home game against Golden State in January.
The second half was a different story. It was the Cavs finding a way to win a game they didn’t really have business winning, at least not for the first three quarters. They were down by as many as 15 in the second half, but used hustle, timely offense, and much better defense to will themselves to a victory.
Got that dawg in him
The Cavaliers absolutely do not win this game without Lamar Stevens. He deserves a large portion of the credit for turning things around in the fourth quarter.
In the first three quarters, Stevens played a total of nine seconds, as he was in defensively on Boston’s final possession of the first half.
He played the entire fourth quarter and all of overtime, coming up with big play after big play, offensively, defensively, and most importantly, by out-hustling the Celtics.
In the 17 minutes he played, Stevens finished with eight points and eight rebounds. Six of those eight rebounds came on the offensive end of the floor. It was a case of Stevens just wanting it more than anyone else at times. Those six offensive rebounds ultimately led to 11 second chance points for the Cavs in fourth quarter and overtime.
“Lamar is a dog and he's willing to scrap, he's willing to fight,” Cavs head coach JB Bickerstaff said after the game. “He's not afraid of the moment. He hit the big 3, then he drives down the lane with the physical finish and then every time we needed an extra possession, he went and got it and he made the right play after he got it. So I can't say enough about how proud I am of him and how deserving he is of a ton of credit for us winning this game tonight.”
What may be most impressive about Stevens’ play is that aside from the nine seconds to end the first half, he didn’t play in the game until the fourth quarter. His number wasn’t called upon until when it mattered most, and he could not have stepped up in a bigger way. That’s something that matters inside that locker room. It matters to Bickerstaff and the rest of the coaches, too.
“When Lamar speaks, you listen,” Donovan Mitchell said. “That's something that you earn. I've only been here a few months but you can tell as a locker room, as a group of guys, we trust in him, in his voice, his leadership. Not only did he do it by voice, but by example. When he's out there competing, fighting, screaming, getting buckets, and also getting stops, you've gotta be out there doing the same thing. You don't want to let Lamar down and that's what he provides for us.”
Moving forward, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Stevens more prominently in the rotation. Right now, the Cavs can’t really figure out much at the backup power forward spot, and Stevens might be the answer, at least for the time being.
The will to win
There are nights when Mitchell won’t be stopped from finding a way to take the Cavaliers to a victory. Monday night was one of those nights. He so often finds ways to positively impact the game, even if he’s not putting on the best shooting display.
That sounds like a bit of an odd thing to say about an All-Star guard that just turned in his eighth 40-point performance of the season, but it’s true of Mitchell on Monday night. He didn’t exit the game during the entire second half and overtime while shooting just 7-of-22 during that stretch.
What he did do, however, was continuously make winning play after winning play. He played terrific defense, made the hustle plays, collected eight rebounds, made all of his free throws, and most importantly, helped the Celtics to miss theirs when it counted.
After Mitchell stepped to the line with 5.8 seconds left in regulation and knocked down a pair of free throws to tie the game at 109, Boston had a chance to win the game after Grant Williams was fouled by Stevens with 0.8 seconds left on the clock.
Mitchell stepped in, somewhat delaying the free throw process for Williams, making him think about what was at stake.
“I was just like, let's just miss one and talk about it and see what happens,” Mitchell said of the brief conversation with Williams.
Television cameras caught Williams mouthing back to Mitchell telling him of his plan to make both free throws.
Instead, he missed both attempts and the two teams went to overtime for the third time in four matchups this season.
Having a superstar that’s willing to do what Mitchell does for the Cavaliers sets a tone that’s otherwise difficult to achieve. The importance of him playing 47 minutes in an overtime victory in early March may not seem all that significant, but it’s something the Cavs needed on Monday. He did it all while entering the game with an injury designation of questionable.
Even though he finished with 40 points, some of Mitchell’s biggest plays were defensive stops and offensive rebounds.
“I work so hard for these moments, for these opportunities,” Mitchell said. “I didn't really make a shot in the second half, but just trying to find ways to make winning plays. Defensively, offensively, and however that is. Just kinda finding ways to win the game. Doesn't really matter how you go about it, just win the game at the end of the day. We couldn't really afford to lose this one.”
It was a game the Cavs needed to win no matter how it was looked at, and Mitchell delivered.
Mobley’s big night
It wasn’t the story of the night, but it certainly deserves mention how good Evan Mobley was for the Cavs on Monday. He finished with a quiet 25 points and 17 rebounds on 10-of-14 shooting. He added three blocks to his stat line, too.
“I mean it's who he's becoming over and over again. His aggressiveness offensively, his ability to get to his spot, the touch that he has around the rim and even the confidence to continue to take shots when he's open,” Bickerstaff said. “But defensively, he just has the ability to do so much. Guard different positions, but just protect his teammates in a way that you don't see in young guys. It typically takes them time to get there, but Evan is far advanced in how he protects his teammates.”
On a night that didn’t require a furious comeback by the Cavs against an undermanned team, Mobley may have been the biggest story, rather than the footnote tonight. With that said, this type of performance becoming something that isn’t a big deal is a great sign for the second-year big man and the Cavs.
The Cavs now start their final multi-city road trip on Wednesday night. They have a pair of games in Miami against the Heat, with the second one taking place on Friday, before heading to Charlotte for a pair of games on Sunday and Tuesday night.
At the completion of play on Monday, Cleveland has a 1.5-game lead over the New York Knicks for fourth place in the East and trails Philadelphia by 2.5 games for third place.