Of the Cavaliers’ playoff losses, why did Game 3 have Donovan Mitchell most upset?

CLEVELAND — Think about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2024 playoff losses.

Two horrifying blowouts, one lopsided loss that was expected, one catastrophic fourth-quarter collapse and, then, Game 3 Saturday.

The Cavs’ latest defeat 106-93 at the hands of the Boston Celtics in an Eastern Conference semifinal series, had Donovan Mitchell more upset than any of the others — by a comfortable margin.

“Yeah, because a lot of it (Saturday) was self-induced,” Mitchell said. “I think (there were) a lot of things we did wrong.”

Mitchell has been a steadying force inside the Cavs’ locker room, after paramount wins and embarrassing defeats. He’s not the only voice of reason as several playoff veterans in Cleveland jerseys have gone to (and won) NBA Finals and articulated the years that seem to go by in the two weeks it takes to compete in playoff series.

After getting beat by 38 by the Orlando Magic in a first-round series game or even after choking away a fourth-quarter lead that could’ve put the Magic away, Mitchell’s body language and tone were noticeably upbeat. He asked for and accepted blame, made pledges to improve and seemed to shrug off any undercurrents that seemed to be shifting when Orlando kept beating the Cavs’ on the road.

But after the Cavs lost Saturday to the Celtics, it was Mitchell’s turn for the long stare. It was Mitchell’s turn to take extra time to decompress and compose himself to speak publicly. As he sat in his chair in front of his corner locker stall, a scowl on his face as he scrolled through his phone, there were a few side conversations with individual teammates about what went wrong.

“We got up 36 3s; obviously, we could shoot a little better,” Mitchell told reporters, a reference to the 33 percent shooting from 3 and 43 percent shooting overall. “Defensively, we held them to 106, but it felt crazy in the moment because of those spurts. That’s what I was talking about last game. Those little details, those little runs can change the entirety of the game.”

Mitchell was dominant Saturday with 33 points on 12-of-22 shooting and seven 3s. Evan Mobley wasn’t quite as active as Game 2 but still good with 17 points and eight rebounds, while both Darius Garland and Caris LeVert contributed 15 points each — though they combined to shoot 2 of 9 from 3.

The Cavs watched Boston open the third quarter on a 14-0 run and never quite recovered. The closest they got was nine points, with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter.

The Celtics’ third-quarter rally constitutes a “spurt,” but Mitchell also was referring to the start of the game, when he said nine of Boston’s first 17 shots were 3s. An even smaller spurt? The Cavs had cut their first-half deficit to seven on a Mitchell 3-pointer with less than a minute left. Isaac Okoro had a clean look at a 3 on the next possession that would have made it a four-point game, but he missed (as he did on all four of his 3-point tries), and Jayson Tatum sank two free throws for a nine-point advantage.

“We held them to 106, and that’s not a bad defensive game against a team like that, but it’s the key moments of when they get those points, the runs they get and then not being able to score back on the other end,” Mitchell said. “It just compounds, and it compounds. I think that’s the frustrating part of it.”

This was Mitchell’s turn to talk about the pressure playing against Boston’s offense. The Celtics were the NBA’s No. 1 offense and also the league’s heaviest 3-point hitter. To hold that team to 106, to clarify Mitchell’s point, is a game the Cavs need to win.

That’s what Game 2’s blowout win over the Celtics did for Cleveland. It served as a road map for what is possible in this series if followed with great discipline. Defensively, run Boston off the 3-point line and force its shaky ballhandlers to make plays off the dribble. On offense, take advantage of Kristaps Porziņģis being out of the lineup. Attack the paint until the Celtics cave and help Al Horford, Porziņģis’ replacement, which opens the perimeter for 3s later.

The Cavs … didn’t quite do that Saturday. They were lulled into the trap laid not just by the Celtics but also by the Magic before them and the New York Knicks last spring: feed Okoro for open 3s in the corner. This loss is not solely on Okoro, but more broadly speaking, the Cavs were lulled into hunting the 3 rather than maintaining the strict discipline they exhibited in Game 2 of seeking closer shots over and over again until there was more room to shoot on the perimeter for Cleveland’s better shooters.

“I think there were some times where we tried to hit the home run,” Mitchell said, who included himself among those who swung for the fence and whiffed like Mighty Casey. “It feels like the weight of the world, especially when you’re at home. (The Celtics) did their job. They took the crowd out, and at the end of the day, it’s how we respond back. We didn’t respond back.”

Dean Wade played his first game in two months, but Jarrett Allen didn’t join him — and he could have a huge impact in this series if he were able to play.

Whereas Wade missed two full months with a sprained knee and returned to action in Game 3 for five points in 16 minutes, Allen has now missed six consecutive playoff games with what the team calls a rib bruise. If that’s all it is, Allen may have set a modern NBA record for games missed because of that injury. There has been reporting by The Athletic about how much pain Allen is in, that his rib was “pierced” by Orlando’s Franz Wagner, but that was two weeks ago.

With Allen and Mobley on the court together, the Cavs would give up some of the spacing they play so well with. But in this particular series, Cleveland might be helped by Boston having to guard both Allen and Mobley or risk being gutted in the lane — which the Cavs proved willing to do in Game 2.

“We just gotta find different advantages and take those advantages instead of trying to do the same thing over and over,” Mobley said.

The Cavs are, again, two wins from elimination and having to consider a host of uncomfortable questions. Mitchell said there was no time to be “demoralized” over this loss because the most important game of the season is Game 4 on Monday.

But this particular loss bothering him more than the others is notable. It either means his expectations are higher for this franchise because of what transpired in Game 2, or he knows a golden opportunity was lost to beat the Celtics on a night when they weren’t close to their best.

We’ll see Monday how Mitchell and the Cavs “respond back,” in Mitchell parlance.

Required reading

(Photo of Donovan Mitchell: David Richard / USA Today)

First appeared on theathletic.com

Leave a Comment