BROOKLYN, NY – Darius Garland walked into the Barclays Center wearing a five-letter white hoodie – WDRFA – written across his chest.
We do not run from adversity.
That’s been the Cleveland Cavaliers’ mindset all season. Why should that change prior to the play-in tournament game?
It did not matter that Garland was about two hours from his first NBA game after the season. It did not matter that a couple of ruthless superstars – Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving – were waiting, which would show the sharp difference between the off-season and the regular season. It did not matter that the Cavs went into the night as eight-point underdogs, with all 18 members of the great ESPN staff choosing the Nets to win in Tuesday morning’s preview of the match. It did not matter that All-Star center Jarrett Allen was out for the 19th game in a row, which hurt Cleveland’s chances – another absence in a season with too many to overcome.
Garland was not running. He did not retire. It’s not in his DNA. The charismatic youngster, who recently referred to the Cavaliers as a scary opponent, confidently walked into the lion’s den and carried the team’s playoff hopes with him.
The first quarter was a disaster. Overtrained and out of sorts, the understaffed and inexperienced Cavs gave 40 points, allowing the Nets to shoot 70.8% from the field.
By the end of the 12 minutes that emptied the air, Cleveland was 20 points behind. Barclays Center pulsed. Flourishing songs by Brooklyn, Brooklyn, Brooklyn resonated – a true playoff-like atmosphere.
On the road. In a deep hole. Playing against a talented team is described as one of the Eastern Conference favorites. Could not have written a worse opening. More adversity.
But the Cavs are one of the league’s big surprises for a reason. It is a special, heartfelt, united, tough group that never stops. Even in a loss Tuesday showed exactly who Cleveland is – including mistakes.
“We keep talking about this, we have to learn and take that experience and take the hard lessons,” Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff said after the 115-108 defeat. “Brooklyn, with their experience, came out in the first quarter with the intensity and the wildness that we’re talking about. It took us to get knocked up a bit before we turned on the switch. It is part of our learning process to understand these moments and find your peace and your balance. It just took us a little too long to get there. ”
Prior to the game, Bickerstaff was asked what the Cavs needed from Garland.
“Everything,” he said.
It gave Garland and cleared another bar during this third-year leap. With the stage set, the spotlight shining and the basketball world watched, Garland looked like a star, scoring a holdhigh 34 points on 13-of-24 from the field and 3-of-6 from 3-point range in 39 minutes. Garland scored 24 in the second half. He opened the fourth quarter with nine points in a row and finished with 16 in the fourth, igniting a furious rally late in the game that fell short.
“I thought he found his way in the first quarter,” Bickerstaff said of Garland. “But as the fight went on, he fell to the right and he was the one we needed him to be. I think we cut it down to 5 at one point and a lot of it was on his back. He now knows when and he knows what we need and how we are going to get it.He has figured out that part of the game and what his teammates need from him.He learns and I expect, that he is better on Friday. ”
Garland became sober and also had six turnovers. But the loss was not about him not being good enough. Garland did not get enough help.
Rookie phenomenon Evan Mobley looked comfortable and undisturbed. He contributed 19 points on an effective 9-of-13 shot with seven rebounds, two assists and two blocks. Veteran Kevin Love, with 63 career games in the playoffs, provided a much-needed boost from the bench. Love scored 14 points and snatched 13 boards. In 29 minutes with Love on the floor, Cleveland surpassed Brooklyn by 10 points in 29 minutes. Bickerstaff should have played him more.
Backup point guard Rajon Rondo channeled his alter ego “Playoff Rondo.” He finished with seven points and nine assists in 26 minutes, the fourth most in the entire season.
“It was between myself and ‘just hold everyone,'” Love said. “This team, we do not necessarily need it too much, but in this type of situation where everything is so amplified, we just wanted to make sure that in every cluster we were there, we talked and continued the communication.”
But Cleveland did not get much elsewhere. Caris LeVert, the acquisition with the deadline brought in for his scoring abilities, missed eight of his first nine shots. LeVert finished with 12 points on 4-of-12 from the field in 40 minutes, hardly the kind of production the front office imagined when he gave up several drafts, including a lottery-protected first-rounder.
Second-year swingman Isaac Okoro looked unplayable. Nets repeatedly left him open and used the extra defender to displace the paint and deter Garland. It’s no coincidence that most of Garland’s goals came in the second half – a stretch where Okoro played just four minutes before being exposed to Rondo.
Garland talked about being more attack-oriented on switches because Irving and Bruce Brown, Brooklyn’s two primary point-of-attack defenders, were in bad trouble for part of the second half. It allowed Garland to take advantage of mismatches and get to the basket without much resistance.
But there was another part of the equation. Without Okoro, the floor was scattered. There was more room for Garland to drive. He could play the ball more often with a secondary creator.
Okoro’s eerie statistical line: Zero points, three missed shots, a rebound, an assist and two errors in 13 unaffected minutes.
Lauri Markkanen, who was not surprisingly chased at the defensive end, had 13 points on 5-of-14 shots and 1-of-4 from deep. Cedi Osman missed all four of his attempts. Wouldn’t it have been nice for Cleveland to have an exciting combo guard Collin Sexton who stood along the baseline most of the game on the surgically repaired meniscus?
The Cavs need a more consistent offensive Friday night. From all those guys. If not, they are likely heading for another loss in a row, especially when the defense looks vulnerable.
Allen’s return would alleviate some of the problems. He continues to develop, able to use his left hand – the one with the broken middle finger – during intense training. But a source still sees Friday as a 50-50 proposal. The Cavs can not rely on Allen to push them into the playoffs. As Tuesday night showed, Garland’s best may not be enough either.
Bickerstaff can be faster to adjust. The rotations may be tighter. The minutes did better. The Cavs also believe there are adjustments within their control – and positives from the last three quarters, where they once again showed remarkable resilience to gather from 22 points down and make it a two-possession game in the final minutes.
“You can not start the game that way,” Bickerstaff said. “You can’t give a team like Brooklyn that has championship hopes and players that have won championships a 22-point lead. Give our guys credit for getting back into it. But it’s almost impossible to overcome.”
“There were some times where we beat ourselves throughout the game,” Love added. “It simply came to our notice then. Played three good quarters and the first quarter was what really got us going. There were some things at the offensive end we wish we could have back in the first half. But I thought we played well in that end, it was just too much for us to dig back. I think there are many good opportunities for us when we go home and play a match that gives us a chance to win and get in. ”
The best tweak is that others step up to help Garland – a rising star who proved he is ready for the playoffs. This has been the case all season. The team-first approach is why the Cavs are here.
“Our guys created something in that locker room so quickly, unlike anything I’ve seen since I’ve been in the league,” Bickerstaff said. “For those who have not seen us or have not seen us, you see the joy and the passion and the spirit that our boys play with, and it’s all about the team. We do not have a guy who puts himself above the team. We have guys who play different roles and play different positions, but they try to be the best for their role or that position because they know that’s what the team needs and that’s how they want to help the team.
“When you have a bunch of guys who are willing to buy into something bigger than themselves, you give yourself a chance to have some success. We are extremely lucky to have a bunch of guys who have pushed that aside and decided that the team will be the most important. “
After the game, Garland threw on another WDRFA hoodie. Adversity has struck again. The Cavs’ unexpected dream season comes down to Friday night – an all-or-nothing battle against the winner of Atlanta and Charlotte.
They do not run.
“We have one more shot at it at home,” Bickerstaff told cleveland.com. “We know what we’re capable of and we just have to put it together.”
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