It took them nearly 20 years but the Cleveland Cavaliers finally did it. On Tuesday night, the Cavaliers played in a postseason game for the first time without LeBron James on the roster. That factoid alone is something that Cleveland's roster takes pride in. It's no easy task building out of the shadow of LeBron James but, it feels like the Cavaliers are on the precipice of becoming a serious contender in the Eastern Conference someday soon.
Unfortunately, on Tuesday night the reality of what's next for Cleveland came crashing in as well. Postseason basketball is a different beast compared to the regular season and the Brooklyn Nets, the Cavaliers' opponent, is a battle-tested monster compared to the young Cleveland greenhorns.
“That’s part of our learning process is understanding these moments and finding your composure and your poise,” Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff said following the loss. “It just took us a little too long to get there. We got there in the second, third and fourth quarters, I thought we played really good basketball.”
Four of the five starters for Cleveland were stepping onto the postseason stage for the first time at the Barclays Center and, unfortunately, the Cavaliers looked rattled by the moment early. By the end of the first quarter, Brooklyn had already doubled-up Cleveland, building a 20-point lead with the Nets' superstar tandem of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving accounting for 38 of the team’s 40 points in the quarter. Brooklyn also shot 70.8% from the field in the first quarter, while Cleveland hit 30.0% of their attempts.
From there, it seemed like it was going to be an embarrassing postseason debut for quite a few members of the Cavaliers. Instead, quite the opposite happened. Starting from the second point onward, Cleveland found their composure and the Cavaliers recovered from what seemed like a knockout blow from the Nets.
Darius Garland and Evan Mobley, two-thirds of Cleveland's young Big Three, were spectacular. Garland carried the Cavaliers all night offensively – finishing the night with 34 points, 3 huge three-pointers, 5 assists and 2 steals. Mobley, meanwhile, played through foul trouble and Brooklyn's physicality and chipped in 19 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks. Lauri Markkanen, who had 13 points, and Caris LeVert, who contributed 12 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists, also came on strong in the second half and helped Cleveland remain in the fight until the bitter end in Brooklyn.
In a season where Garland, Mobley and the Cavaliers have already shattered preconceived expectations individually and together, they had a bit of a coming-out party in Brooklyn on Tuesday night. When having to go toe to toe with Irving and Durant, two superstars that are beyond seasoned in their craft, Garland and Mobley showed that they belonged. Ditto for some of the key reserves as well. Sure, there were a few times Durant made life difficult for them on either end of the floor in this loss. But, as Bickerstaff said, it's all a part of the learning process.
Cavaliers rookie superstar Evan Mobley has been transcendental at times this season. His latest test was going toe to toe with some of the NBA's best and he proved that he belongs on basketball's biggest stage.
That's why when Cleveland plays host to the winner between the Charlotte Hornets and the Atlanta Hawks, they should be feeling good about their chances, despite the loss. Sure, there were growing pains for the Cavaliers all throughout their loss to the Nets. But, the positives, like Garland and Mobley looking composed, winning the remainder of the game 88-75 or having a variety of players step up in the second half, stand out even more.
If Cleveland is able to crystalize what helped them succeed on Tuesday night against Brooklyn, it should easily translate to on the floor at home. It also helps that the Cavaliers already have the fourth-best home record in the Eastern Conference this season. If you couple that with a raucous playoff crowd, along with what they found success with while in Brooklyn, on top of the Cleveland Guardians home opener happening next door, good luck to whoever ends up coming to the confines of Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
Things may feel more realistic for the Cavaliers if they get back Jarrett Allen as well. It's been a month since Allen went down with a broken finger in a victory over the Toronto Raptors. During that stretch, the All-Star big man has missed 18 games for the Cavaliers and Cleveland has seen their stalwart defense flounder. There's optimism about his recovery, but, he was still ruled out for Tuesday's loss to the Nets. If the Cavaliers had Allen, it could've been a completely different ball game for Cleveland. Sure, they still might not have won but, they also may not have been outscored 40-20 in the first quarter either.
That's why, according to sources, there's a chance Allen plays Friday night for the Cavaliers. Granted, it all hinges on whether or not his nagging finger feels fully comfortable. But, if he can go, it would be a huge shot in the arm for Cleveland's players and their fans. Allen would unlock so many things on both ends of the floor for the Cavaliers. It also unlocks plenty of rim-shattering dunks and emphatic blocks, which will get an already locked-in crowd to take it to the next level.
Sure, a lot of this feels like hyperbole, and, right now, it's all hypothetical. Come Friday night, the Cavaliers could easily implode under pressure. They've already done it before a few times this year, and it could easily happen again on Friday night. But, at this point, Cleveland has nothing to lose. This season has nothing been short of a miracle for them and, at this point, possibly heading to the playoffs is the latest cherry on top of a mountain. After showing promise in Brooklyn, the Cavaliers are carrying all momentum heading back home. It feels like a safe bet that they'll be playing in Miami against the Heat on Easter Sunday.
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