The NBA season is starting to wind down and for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the playoffs are almost within reach. As of today, Cleveland’s will clinch a playoff spot if they win two of their next seven games after winning their last two games over the Brooklyn Nets. If it were to happen, it would be the first time in half a decade that the Cavaliers made it to the postseason. More importantly, it’ll be the first time that Cleveland makes the playoffs without LeBron James on the roster since the 1997-98 season.
From the outside looking in, the end of their regular season quest is nearly in sight and would cap off a multi-year rebuild. But, on the inside, the Cavaliers remain focused on the next game ahead of them, taking it one game at a time, alleviation be damned.
“You would hope so but there’s a sickness in coaches that doesn’t allow you to do that,” joked Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to Right Down Euclid. “We have to go out every night and get the job done and that’s always what our mindset is going to be. Whatever the opportunity is, we have to seize it. Because if we let our guard down and we feel comfortable, other guys will feel that, and we can’t afford that.”
Considering how last year ended for Cleveland, Bickerstaff’s words have some weight to them. Last year, the Cavaliers dealt with a rash of injuries and saw their playoff hopes evaporate in the play-in tournament. Facing Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets for the first play-in game is untenable for any team. But, Cleveland gave the Atlanta Hawks the sense of comfort Bickerstaff mentioned and soon saw their season come to a stunning end.
In fact, in Tuesday’s win over the Brooklyn Nets, complicity haunted the Cavaliers after Donovan Mitchell posterized Yuta Watanabe and broke the collective psyche of everyone who watched. To many, it felt like the game was over then and there. Unfortunately, to their credit, there isn’t a mercy rule in basketball, and the Nets clawed back in and made it a dogfight down the stretch. To some, it can be frustrating to see Cleveland get close to blowing a lead in the fourth quarter. But, to others, it was an opportunity to sharpen their collective focus and know nothing is certain for the Cavaliers yet.
“That’s ultimately wins and losses in the playoffs,” said Mitchell to Right Down Euclid postgame Tuesday. “On a night like tonight, if we don’t make several free throws and they make certain shots down the stretch, it’s not a 6 or 8-point win it’s a one-point game and everything gets a little tighter.
“We’ve got to continue being consistent with what we do and we didn’t do that tonight. The fact that we’re discussing that as a group is something that I’m proud of because, at the end of the day, we wouldn’t have discussed it at the beginning of the year. Why would we? We hadn’t taken the steps. I think we are taking the steps and not just discussing it and holding each other accountable in these moments and that shows the growth of the group. It’s not just coming from the coach. It’s not just coming from myself. It’s coming from everybody and I think that shows the growth and the willingness to find ways to grow.”
Curiously enough, Brooklyn, Cleveland’s latest regular season opponent, could give the Cavaliers a possible glimpse into their playoff future. Sure, it’s unlikely the Nets will head to Cleveland to take on the Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse to open up the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. But, a semi-playoff series it can give teams like Cleveland, who have playoff aspirations, a glimpse of what to expect.
On Tuesday’s tilt, the Nets were committed to blitzing the Cavaliers on the perimeter while overwhelming Cleveland with their length. On Thursday, the Cavaliers responded to Brooklyn’s physicality by focusing on getting cleaner looks for their guards by having their bigs set a bevy of screens and relying on quick, decisive passes.. This led to Cleveland getting plenty of clean looks all over the floor, breaking down Brooklyn’s defense. More importantly, the slight schematic change had the Cavaliers maintaining an edge against the Nets.
That killer instinct was key for Cleveland, indicating that Tuesday’s game’s end was a wake-up call. The Cavaliers started hot on offense and while Brooklyn kept things competitive, Cleveland never relented the lead for long. Sure, it was a dogfight until the end, but the Cavaliers found a way to win on the road despite the Nets finding new ways to make them uncomfortable. Nevertheless, Cleveland found a way to dig deep and win, even if it was a little dramatic, and set their playoff aspirations nearly within reach.
These learning experiences are valuable for the Cavaliers even this late in the season. Before Thursday’s game, Bickerstaff expressed that it’s an opportunity for him and his staff to prepare the team for a playoff-like atmosphere. It was a chance to figure out the back end of the rotation and perhaps why Cedi Osman should get minutes on a more permanent basis. But, that’s for another day. This two-game foray into Brooklyn was part of a continual warmup toward the playoffs for the Cavaliers. By the time they get there, they’ll be a bit more seasoned, despite their lack of overall experience.
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@example.com. 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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