Game Night Observations: A Big Road Win, Simulating The Playoffs, And Evan Mobley's Defense

Game Night Observations: A big road win, simulating the playoffs, and Evan Mobley's defense

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

The Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Miami Heat 104-100 on Wednesday night in Miami for the team’s fourth win in the last five games.

This was a game that almost felt like watching the Cavaliers grow up a little bit. For as successful as they’ve been this season, they’re still a young team that’s dealing with real postseason expectations for the first time as a group. Winning a game in Miami against a solid team that fights until the bitter end on a nightly basis in what certainly qualifies as a playoff environment is something this team needed to do, partially to prove that it could be done.

By no means was this a flawless game played by the Cavs. There are plenty of things that need to be done better for them to get to where they want to go. But this game was similar to a playoff game, where defense matters more than usual, and things can grind to a halt late in the game. Winning this type of game in the fashion they did matters for them.

The Cavs outplayed Miami for most of the night but still found themselves in a tight game down the stretch. That’s an area they haven’t always executed the best offensively. Wednesday night wasn’t perfect, especially with the five-second violation that gave Miami the ball back down by five with 22.3 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, but it’s a good sign that the team made both shot attempts in the final two minutes of the game and connected on enough of the pressure-packed free throws to ice the game.

Part of what makes the win for the Cavs impressive is that they didn’t need to be carried by Donovan Mitchell. There have been times when the team has needed Mitchell to score 40 points for the Cavs to have a chance at winning. He’s capable of doing it, and that’s what superstars do.

Wednesday night, Mitchell didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, finishing with just 18 points on 7-of-18 shooting and 1-of-7 from deep. It was just the 15th game this season in which Mitchell finished with less than 20 points and just the ninth time he’s scored less than 20 points while playing 30 or more minutes.

Darius Garland made up for it with 25 points and seven assists, while Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen both had 15 points and Isaac Okoro added in 13. Both Garland and Okoro made baskets in the final two minutes to help ice the game, with Okoro’s make coming off of a feed from Garland.

When the playoffs arrive, Wednesday night is a night the Cavs will be able to draw from as a group. It’s one of their first experiences of truly meaningful basketball on the road where they were able to do enough to win. Having this type of experience does nothing but help this team down the stretch of the year and into the postseason.

It also gives the Cavaliers an opportunity to follow it up on Friday night with another game in Miami. How the Cavs have responded to things this season – both good and bad – has been one of the interesting subplots. Wednesday night can be looked at as a response to the lack of urgency the Cavs had in their win over Boston on Monday night, specifically in that first half.

Following up Wednesday night’s win with a good performance against this same Miami Heat team on Friday night would be one of the biggest messages the Cavaliers could send to the rest of the NBA, and in a way, themselves.

Mobley being special

The box score on Wednesday night doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story, and there are plenty of nights when it does with Mobley. He finished the game against Miami with 15 points, six rebounds, and six assists. He was also the best defensive player on the floor in a game that featured a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Miami’s Bam Adebayo. That’s not nothing.

There are plays Mobley can make defensively that look normal because they happen with him so frequently, even though they’re a rarity for guys that are his size to be able to do.

At times, opposing players view Mobley as a mismatch and feel as if isolating on him is the right idea. It rarely works out. It also says a lot that Mobley can be the primary defender at times against a smaller guy like Jimmy Butler and Butler would rather force a switch onto a different defender than work against Mobley.

Whether it’s this year or the next, Mobley is going to become a regular fixture on the NBA’s All-Defense team. He’s surpassed Jarrett Allen as the team’s best defender and will find himself in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year on a regular basis. Whether or not he completely fulfills his potential as a player depends on his continued development offensively – which has been really good lately but is a different conversation – but his defense is already some of the best in the entire NBA.

Playoff mentality

This two-game set for the Cavaliers gives them a bit of an opportunity to treat things like it is a playoff setting. It’s not incredibly likely that the Cavs will face Miami in the postseason, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t being treated as such. With the off day on Thursday, the plan for the Cavaliers will be to make the adjustments they would be making as if this were a playoff series.

This schedule quirk, of which the Cavaliers have three more of in the final month of the season, gives the team an opportunity to prepare for the playoffs in a different way than playing in high intensity games. Yes, moments like Wednesday night where winning in a difficult environment absolutely matter.
But making adjustments between games in a series matters too, not only for the players but also the coaching staff. There’s nothing that can perfectly prepare organizations for a playoff run, especially when it’s the first playoff run a core has together, as this will be for the Cavs.

Wednesday night’s win now gives the Cavaliers a 2.5-game cushion between them and the New York Knicks for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. They’re also 2.5 games behind the Philadelphia 76ers for third place in the conference. The most likely outcome for the Cavs is finishing in fourth place, but it’s a bit more likely the team is able to jump over Philadelphia and finish third than it is they slip to fifth place.

The reunion

Wednesday night was the first time since November 13, 2013 that Kevin Love played a basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Back then, he was an MVP candidate for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Now, Love is a starter for the Miami Heat.

Seeing Love in a uniform other than a Cleveland one still looks weird, even if he’s been with Miami for a couple of weeks at this point. The play on the court, however, didn’t look much different than the end of his time in Cleveland. He’s still able to rebound and pass at an adequate level, but the outside shooting hasn’t come back to form for him. He missed both 3-pointers he attempted on Wednesday night, and is just 8-of-33 (24.2%) from 3-point range since joining the Heat.

Love can provide something to the Heat, and if he regains form from the outside he’ll be much more effective, but on Wednesday night he looked like the same player that wasn’t able to help out this Cavs team anymore.