The Cleveland Cavaliers haven't been healthy to start the season. That's no surprise to anyone, but it makes evaluating their performance a difficult combination of guesswork and projection. On the surface, their 9-8 record is a disappointment; looking closer, the Cavs have never had their full rotation available and in most games have been missing at least one starter.
NBA teams have to find a way to win despite injuries, and the Cavs have done that to some extent; the Memphis Grizzlies buckled under the weight of their injuries (and suspensions), winning just three of their first sixteen games. On the other hand, the Phoenix Suns have not played a single game with all three of their stars available and many games with only one on the court, and they are 11-6 through the first month of the season.
All five of Cleveland's starters are off of the injury report (even if both Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell are likely still dealing with the effects of their muscle injuries), presenting an opportunity for the Cavaliers to start climbing back up the standings. Dean Wade and Ty Jerome remain out, but Wade is a bigger loss than Jerome; Craig Porter Jr. has stepped up in Jerome's stead, while the Cavs' best option to replace Wade is....Tristan Thompson?
Win or Go Home: In-Season Tournament Wraps Up
The path up the standings begin tonight, when the Cavs take on the Atlanta Hawks in the final game of the In-Season Tournament Group Stage. The Indiana Pacers have already defeated both teams and won East Group A with a 4-0 record; they will not only advance to the Knockout Stage but will host a quarterfinal game in Indiana.
The Cavaliers still have a chance to advance, however, as the Wild Card from the Eastern Conference. To do so, they will need to not only defeat the Atlanta Hawks tonight, they will need to win by a substantial margin to boost their point differential as high as possible.
If the Cavaliers win and all four of the Knicks, Heat, Celtics and Nets lose, it will be Cleveland advancing as the only second-place team with a 3-1 record. More likely, they will need to win a tiebreaker, and the first tiebreaker is point differential. Through three games the Cavs have a pedestrian +6 differential; they need to add to that tonight.
That makes for some interesting pressures on the game, reminiscent more of the Champions League or the World Cup than standard NBA basketball. The Cavs can't be satisfied with a simple victory, but should look to blow out the Hawks, and at the very least keep their foot on the gas late in the game.
Their game tips off at 7:30 pm ET, the same time as many of the other challengers for that East Wild Card. There may be a point late in the game where the results of other games affect the Cavs in real-time.
If Cleveland loses tonight it will be eliminated from the In-Season Tournament.
Donovan Mitchell poised for explosion
The Cavaliers escaped Sunday night with a 105-102 win over the Toronto Raptors, but it was easily Donovan Mitchell's worst game of the season. He couldn't get his shot to fall and continued a recent shooting slump, this time shooting just 4-of-17 from the field (0-for-5 from 3-point range) and scored 10 points.
Per Cleveland.com's Ethan Sands, Bickerstaff expressed his belief in Mitchell and predicted a coming explosion:
""Donovan knows we have the ultimate belief in him, and the law of averages means in the next coming games, there's going to be an explosion. And we believe in him, his teammates believe in him.""- J.B. Bickerstaff
The last time that Mitchell scored 10 points or fewer was in February, when he scored only six points on 2-for-11 shooting in a 15-point win over the Memphis Grizzlies. Unlike many of the league's perimeter stars, Mitchell doesn't force up shots when he is having an off night; he is willing to give up the ball to Darius Garland and exert pressure off the ball.
Mitchell scored 19 points in his next game after the six-point outing, then 21, then 30 as he worked out of the slump. Two months earlier, he shot 5-for-16 from the field for 15 points with seven turnovers on New Year's Eve, but followed that up with a cool 71 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds the next game.
MItchell has proven he can put a bad game behind him and take flight any time. If Bickerstaff thinks an explosion is coming, he may just be right.
Does Cleveland have a dangerous court?
The court at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse is a unique one among NBA arenas, with the basketball playing surface elevated above the ground floor. This design helps to ensure the ice rink below doesn't cause condensation on the court, a problem that does occur at other NBA arenas that are shared with a hockey team.
The downside is that a player flying out of bounds doesn't simply have to worry about the front row of seats, they have to worry about the roughly 10-inch drop on the edge of the court. That's a common enough setting at some college arenas or for special games played in football stadiums, but for NBA players it's only once or twice a season they have to worry about it.
That drop seems to have been an unfortunate participant in the season-ending injury to Miami Heat guard Dru Smith, and head coach Erik Spoelstra pointed the finger squarely at the Cavaliers and their "dangerous" court. We expound more on the story here.
What to Read
- Caleb Crowley takes his weekly look around the league, highlighting how the Cavs' improved shooting is making a difference and applauding the best performances on the team.
- The Cavaliers played both sides of last year's NBA Finals matchup last week, sandwiched around a trip to Philadelphia to face the scorching-hot 76ers. Mateo Mayorga shares his takeaways from a measuring-stick week.
- The Cavaliers have played a lot of players and a lot of different lineups to start the year, driven largely by injuries. That new information has communicated which players on the roster are expendable and which they can't afford to trade.
- Thanksgiving is a time to express gratitude, and Izzy Sy does just that with three things the Cavaliers should be thankful for.
- Evan Mobley hasn't taken off to start the season, and other exciting young bigs around the league are passing him by.
The Cleveland Cavaliers host the Atlanta Hawks tonight, the final night of the inagural NBA In-Season Tournament's Group Stage. They have a real but small chance to advance. The game also counts for the regular season standings, so it's an important one to win either way. The game tips off at 7:30 pm ET.
Cleveland then gets some relief from a tough stretch of opponents, playing the Portland Trail Blazers and Detroit Pistons on Thursday and Saturday respectively.