“I’ve got to be better.”
It was part of a postgame answer about getting Evan Mobley more shot attempts, but it summed things up for Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. As any good coach is likely to do, Bickerstaff pointed the finger at himself after his team lost.
The reality is, unsurprisingly, much more complicated than simply better coaching, especially after a dispiriting loss like the 109-91 beatdown the Cavaliers endured at the hands of their new rivals, the New York Knicks.
It’s absolutely true that Bickerstaff was once again outcoached by Tom Thibodeau, his Big Apple counterpart. Thibodeau had a defensive scheme ready to trap Donovan Mitchell, and the confidence in his backline to execute it against a rolling Evan Mobley. The Knicks had more size, more dynamic shot creation, and more answers for anything Bickerstaff and the Cavs threw at them.
Donovan Mitchell fought his way through multiple defenders and hit some insane shots to claw his way to 26 points, but he was 0-for-3 from 3-point range. To score he had to work his way into the paint and get his shot off against tight defense. No one was setting him up to score; the burden was on him.
He would hopefully have been helped by Evan Mobley, who in his third year was expected to take a step forward offensively. One game after a breakout 35 points against the Indiana Pacers, Mobley didn’t have it vs the Knicks, scoring six points on 3-for-9 shooting. He did make some passes out of the short roll and finished with five assists, but his offensive impact was not there as he finished a game-worst -19 in his 29 minutes.
No other starter stepped up, as the combination of Isaac Okoro, Dean Wade and Max Strus went a combined 6-for-25 from the field (24 percent). Georges Niang shot 4-for-12 off the bench. The players the Cavs hoped to rely on were stymied by the New York defense and missed the open shots that they did get, and as a team the Cavaliers shot 39 percent from the field and 26 percent from 3-point range. It’s really hard to win a game where your offense struggles to that extent.
On the other side, the Knicks shot 44 percent from the field and 38 percent from deep. Jalen Brunson scored 19 points and was a game-high +21, while bench guards Immanuel Quickley and Donte DiVincenzo carved up Cleveland’s second unit to the tune of 18 points for Quickley and six assists for DiVincenzo.
Here’s why Bickerstaff falling on his sword for this one doesn’t quite hold water. He may be right to blame himself for not doing a better job of having his team ready, or of getting Mobley the ball in advantageous spots. The problem is that he was being forced to coach with one hand tied behind his back.
In the movie Apollo 13, the astronauts need to replace a filter that they didn’t bring to space with them. The NASA team back on earth has to figure out how the astronauts can build one using only the materials they brought with them on the shuttle. In a famous scene, the technicians dump out a box of gizmos, gadgets, odds and ends that represent everything the astronauts have with them. The instructions: We need to find a way to fit this square filter into this round hole, using nothing but all of this.
That was essentially the mission for Bickerstaff on Tuesday night. He went into the game against the Knicks without the injured Jarrett Allen at center. Without the injured Darius Garland at point guard. Without the injured Caris LeVert to replace Garland. Without the injured Ty Jerome to replace LeVert. Without Ricky Rubio as an emergency option.
Instead, the Cavaliers hosted the full-strength New York Knicks without four of their top five guards, including their four best passers, and two of their three best scorers. Rookie second-rounder Emoni Bates was suddenly the first player off the bench. Undrafted rookie Craig Porter Jr. played 22 minutes and took a whopping 12 shots. Mitchell himself was a game-time decision with his own hamstring injury.
As it was, Bickerstaff had very few options available to him to face a team he couldn’t figure out when his team was healthy. He got creative, throwing out all combinations of lineups, including playing Georges Niang at center (that didn’t work) or littering the court with offense-first players and hoping the Knicks would just miss (they didn’t).
In the movie Apollo 13 (and in the real-life situation that was based on), the technicians figure it out. They coach the astronauts through the repair and it all works out.
It didn’t work out for the Cavs. Bickerstaff couldn’t coach them through it. That’s not fully on him; it’s hard for any team to win without a point guard, missing so many key pieces. This team will get healthy and take another crack at the New York Knicks later on. The support players will shoot better. The rookies won’t have too much pushed onto their shoulders.
For now, however, Bickerstaff looks like a man without any answers. He’s staring at the table full of gizmos and gadgets and he can’t see the vision of how to fit them together. His postgame press conference was full of coach speak and platitudes. He deserves a chance to build with a full roster of players, but he also needs to prove he knows how turn the pieces into something life-saving before he’s out of time.
“I’ve got to be better.” They all do.