After the Cleveland Cavaliers flatlined in Game 3 in their ongoing series against the New York Knicks, New York big man Mitchell Robinson said that Cleveland looked rattled. Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff dismissed the notion, simply saying, “Our guys don’t fear anybody. We’re not shook by anyone. And we’ll be ready for Game 4.” Cleveland big man Evan Mobley expressed similar sentiments by saying, “They can say whatever.”
For the Knicks, it’s understandable why players like Robinson or anyone on New York’s roster spoke with so much confidence. The Knicks could defend their homecourt in a reasonably dominant fashion, frustrating the Cavaliers and keeping Cleveland at arm’s length away. New York has been more robust, faster, more intelligent and playing with a sense of urgency all series long, despite only losing to the Cavaliers once this postseason. It felt like New York was the team facing the possibility of elimination, not Cleveland. The Knicks consistently have brought an edge that the Cavaliers hadn’t been able to match and it gave faith to them saying whatever they felt like since, to that point, New York had earned it.
If Cleveland wanted to respond, they’d have to shut out the noise and, more importantly, shut up their opponent by maintaining composure. When Game 4 opened up, it looked like the Cavaliers were trying to control what they could handle. Sure, things still seemed tepid at times, but they scored more than 17 points in the opening frame as they did in Game 3. Besides Ricky Rubio, who didn’t take a single shot attempt in the first quarter, everyone scored that earned minutes in Cleveland’s opening rotation. Nevertheless, it appeared for the moment that the Cavaliers were finding their composure and settling in amid a hostile environment.
It’s excellent that Cleveland made strides in Madison Square Garden, where they had yet to win this season. Unfortunately, they could not control or contain New York or their fans for long and things quickly fell by the wayside. Overall, the Cavaliers gave up 17 offensive rebounds and 21 second-chance points to the Knicks. Everyone knew New York was a dominant offensive rebounding team in this series – Jarrett Allen even called Robinson the best offensive rebounding big in the NBA. But, time and again, the Knicks keep killing the Cavaliers on the glass and making high-energy, momentum-shifting plays to prevent Cleveland from having a real chance. It’s been the narrative all series long and keeps New York in the driver’s seat toward the second round of the playoffs.
“It’s tough and, I’m going to be quoting Donovan Mitchell right now, a lot of it is on me,” said Allen after Game 4. “I should be down there, boxing out and pushing guys around more. It’s frustrating to see myself let somebody get that many offensive rebounds.”
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To be fair to Allen and his co-partner Evan Mobley, it’s not entirely on them to control the Knicks’ offensive flow. But, if they continue to struggle to corral offensive rebounds, the Cavaliers must meet their opponent and battle with them shot for shot. That means it falls squarely on the shoulders of Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland’s superstar backcourt and the engine of the offense’s entire system.
After a nightmare Game 3, Garland found his footing on Sunday – posting 23 points and ten assists- a key reason this game was within striking distance for the Cavaliers. But, for Mitchell, things couldn’t be worse. In Game 4, Mitchell scored 11 points on 27.8% shooting and didn’t connect on a single three-point attempt. Mitchell also had four rebounds, five assists and six turnovers, resulting in eight points for New York.
“I didn’t show up for my teammates,” said Mitchell. “Everybody did their job, and I didn’t do what I was capable of and that’s on me. I played like shit. I’m the leader of this group, everybody did their job, and I didn’t. Simple as that.”
Mitchell didn’t have it going in Game 4 for Cleveland, and his holding himself accountable while taking the blame is what you want from your leader. Besides a solid 38-point, series-opening performance, Mitchell has been virtually non-existent at times for the Cavaliers this postseason. New York has continually dialed up the defensive pressure on Mitchell, making it hard for him to find consistency and rhythm on offense. It’s frustrated Mitchell and has had a negative effect overall for the Cavaliers on offense.
Sure, the 31 points he generated off his playmaking in Cleveland’s Game 2 certainly help when Mitchell’s shot isn’t falling. But, when shots aren’t falling for anyone on the Cavaliers, Cleveland needs Mitchell to step up and perform. In his postseason career, Mitchell is a big-time playoff performer and it’s part of why the Cavaliers wanted to acquire a superstar of his caliber heading into this season. Mitchell met those expectations when Cleveland needed his scoring acumen most during the regular season.
Based on a strong regular season, the expectation was for things to be the same when the lights got even brighter come playoff time, but Mitchell still needs to get it going. The sentiment has always been that the Cavaliers will only go as far as Mitchell can take them when the playoffs arrive. With Cleveland now facing elimination, Mitchell and the Cavaliers may only be able to go a little bit further.
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at [email protected] He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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