CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cleveland Cavaliers star guard Donovan Mitchell didn’t hesitate when the question was asked.
How is it different from the team that lost to Milwaukee last week?
Mitchell quickly looked to his right and pointed at All-Star player Garrett Allen, who didn’t play that fateful night due to a non-COVID-related illness and a weak ankle.
“We got that guy back,” Mitchell said with a bright smile.
This is just one difference from last Wednesday – albeit a huge one. Not only is Allen a defensive pivot, but he and Mitchell have formed the most efficient pick-and-dribble partnership in the league. When Allen is off the ground, Cleveland is unrecognizable—at both ends. In the first game against Milwaukee, the Cavs failed to break the 100-point mark on offense for the first time all season and finished with a fourth-worst rating.
Allen’s return provides an immeasurable boost. But that’s just one difference. There are countless others. That’s why the suddenly up-and-coming Cavs, who have won four straight games, are heading into Friday’s rematch with renewed faith — and much better feelings. They’re out to prove that last week’s loss—which led to a drawn-out heart-to-heart in the visitor’s locker room and barbs from Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff who pointed out his pesky fat cat mentality—was ostensibly fluke.
“We’re a different team mentally coming to Milwaukee, but we also know we have room for improvement as well,” said Mitchell. “I think there’s confidence about us. There’s swagger to us. That’s going to be a great test to see where we’ve come from, especially when you’ve just played it, and it’s fresh in your mind.”
The first encounter was supposed to be a measuring stick, too. This is how the players talked about it in the lead-up to it. The Bucks won the NBA title two years ago and are considered one of the favorites again this season. Cleveland, with a trio of All-Stars in the starting lineup, not only wants to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2018, but is looking forward to a deep run. Teams like Milwaukee get in the way.
Even though we’re only in November, some games still hold more significance. This is one. Especially given the positive momentum achieved last week.
“I think we have a better understanding of what we need to do to be the team we want to be,” Bickerstaff said. “It was in a period where we were flowing too freely and playing at a pace we weren’t comfortable with, one that didn’t suit us. I think we’re back to that. They’re a really good team. It’s going to be a tough challenge for us. But I feel confident our guys are ready for that.”
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Going into last Wednesday’s game, the Cleveland team was rocking. They’ve been on a weeklong malaise, riding a four-game losing sled while exhausted – physically and mentally – after a hectic schedule and an abundance of inexplicable late fumbles that lead to a pile of losses. They lost their dog identity in the junkyard and abandoned the principles that sparked the season’s 8-1 start.
But that night turned into a watershed moment, the kind of loss that led to soul-searching, uncomfortable conversations, and lineup changes.
Misfit, first-scoring guard Carris LeVert, who won’t play Friday night in Milwaukee with an ankle injury, was sent to the bench in a more suitable sixth man role while the aggressive, defense-minded Lamar Stevens entered the starting lineup. .
The Cleveland team is 4-0 since that bold – and clever – dribble, boasting the best defensive rating in the NBA.
“The defensive identity has definitely changed over the past week,” said Darius Garland. “I think we’re starting to get back into it. I think we’re starting to play more physical. We get more stops on the defensive side, which leads offense.”
Stevens is at the center of the transformation.
“Lamar is driving it, to be honest with you,” Garland said of the fitness boost. “He sets that tone for us on the defensive side, and I think it fades on everyone else.”
“He’s got fantastic poise. He’s not afraid of the moment. There’s no match he doesn’t think he’s got a favour,” Bickerstaff added when asked about Stevens. “At the end of games, when you have players like Donovan and Darius and their ability to create and score for others, you need to get These stops. He was able to fit in with that group to help them get pit stops. The trio, him, Jarrett and Evan (Mobley), it’s tough defensively. We’re working on finding that balance, but I think he’s done a great job so far.”
The late game execution is another noticeable difference.
In every game during this winning streak, the Cavs entered the fourth quarter with a lead — and finished. She wasn’t always pretty. The opponents turned on. But they did not crack.
Instead, they find pet combos, practical plays, counters, and lineup combos that work. The three-man move with Garland, Mitchell, and Allen was a killer. There have been some big and exciting relationships with Allen and Mobley. Garland and Mitchell find the right balance—even when it’s the same play over and over again, just with the nuances to make it fresh.
“We seem to be getting better and better with every game at the conclusion of the games,” Allen said. “There are some games that we dropped because we released the throttle. But games like this house stretch when we were 10 years old and needed to hold the lead, we were getting better at it — still playing our game, still doing the simple play to get the job done. In terms of maturity, We’re growing a little bit finishing games.”
Allen is back. defense too. There is a new starting quintet with a better mix of defense and offense. Imperfections that were once raw, fresh, exploitable, and fun to the mood seem to have been corrected.
This isn’t the same team that Pax left reeling on the Fiserv forum. At least, that’s what Cleveland believes.
There is only one way to prove it.
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