CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cleveland Cavaliers star guard Donovan Mitchell didn’t hesitate when the question was posed.
How are you different from the team that lost to Milwaukee last week?
Mitchell quickly glanced to his right and pointed at All-Star center Jarrett Allen, who did not play that fateful night because of a non-COVID-related illness and gimpy ankle.
“We got this guy back,” Mitchell said with a bright smile.
That’s just one difference from last Wednesday — albeit a big one. Allen is not only the defensive linchpin, but he and Mitchell have formed the league’s most efficient pick-and-roll partnership. When Allen is off the floor, Cleveland is unrecognizable — at both ends. In the first matchup against Milwaukee, the Cavs failed to crack the 100-point mark on offense for the first time all season and finished with their fourth-worst defensive rating.
Allen being back provides an unquantifiable boost. But that’s just one difference. There are countless others. It’s why the suddenly surging Cavs, who have won four straight games, are heading into Friday’s rematch with renewed belief — and much better vibes. They are out to show that last week’s loss — which led to a lengthy heart-to-heart in the visitor’s locker room and harsh criticism from Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff who pointed out a disturbing fat-cat mentality — was a circumstantial fluke.
“We’re a different team mentally coming into Milwaukee, but also understanding that we have room to improve as well,” Mitchell said. “I think there’s a confidence about us. There’s a swagger we have. This will be a great test to see where we are at, especially when you just played them, and they are fresh on your mind.”
The first showdown was supposed to be a measuring stick as well. That’s how players talked about it in the lead-up. The Bucks won the NBA title two years ago and are considered one of the favorites again this season. Souped-up Cleveland, with a trio of All-Stars in its starting lineup, not only wants to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2018 but is eyeing a deep run. Teams like Milwaukee stood in the way.
Even though it’s only November, some games still carry more significance. This is one. Especially given the positive momentum built over the last week.
“I think we have a better understanding of what we need to do to be the team that we want to be,” Bickerstaff said. “That was in a spell where we were too much free flowing and playing at a tempo that we’re not comfortable at, one that doesn’t suit us. I think we’ve gotten back to that. They’re a really good team. It’ll be a tough challenge for us. But I feel confident that our guys are up for it.”
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Going into last Wednesday’s game, the Cavs were reeling. They were in a weeklong malaise, riding a four-game losing skid while being worn down — physically and mentally — after a hectic schedule and glut of inexplicable late-game stumbles that led to a pile of losses. They had lost their junkyard dog identity and abandoned the principles that sparked a scorching 8-1 start to the season.
But that night turned out to be a watershed moment, the kind of loss that led to soul searching, uncomfortable conversations and lineup changes.
Ill-fitting, score-first guard Caris LeVert, who will not play Friday night in Milwaukee because of an injured ankle, was sent to the bench in a more suitable sixth man role while tenacious, defensive-minded swingman Lamar Stevens entered the starting lineup .
The Cavs are 4-0 since that gutsy — and astute — maneuver, boasting the NBA’s best defensive rating.
“Defensive identity definitely changed over this last week,” Darius Garland said. “I think we started to get back to it. I think we started to play more physical. We’re getting more stops on the defensive end, which is leading to offense.”
Stevens is at the center of the turnaround.
“Lamar is leading it to be honest with you,” Garland said of the increased physicality. “He’s setting that tone for us on the defensive end, and I think it’s just wearing off on everybody else.”
“He’s got great poise. He’s not afraid of the moment. There’s not a matchup he doesn’t believe he’s got the favor,” Bickerstaff added, when asked about Stevens. “At the end of games, when you got guys like Donovan and Darius and their ability to create for others and score, you’re gonna need to get those stops. He’s been able to fit in with that group to help them get stops. The threesome, him and Jarrett and Evan (Mobley), it’s tough defensively. We’re working to find that balance, but I think he’s done a great job so far.”
Late-game execution is another notable difference.
In each game during this winning streak, the Cavs entered the fourth quarter with a lead — and finished. It wasn’t always pretty. Opponents made runs. But they didn’t crack.
Instead, they found pet sets, workable plays, counters and successful lineup combinations. The three-man action with Garland, Mitchell and Allen has been lethal. There’s been some thrilling big-to-big connections with Allen and Mobley. Garland and Mitchell are finding the right balance—even when it’s the same play repeatedly, only with subtle nuances to make it fresh.
“It seems like every game we’re getting better at closing games,” Allen said. “There are some games we dropped because we let off the gas pedal. But games like this home stretch when we were up by 10 and needed to keep the lead, we’ve been improving in that — still playing our game, still making the simple plays to get the job done. In terms of maturity, we are growing up a little bit closing out games.”
Allen is back. The defense is too. There’s a new starting quintet with a better offense-defense blend. And the flaws that were raw, fresh, exploitable and mood-sucking have seemingly been corrected.
This isn’t the same team the Bucks left reeling inside Fiserv Forum. At least, that’s what Cleveland believes.
There’s only one way to prove it.
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