May 25, 2024

Cavaliers must rely on experience after losing Game 6 despite Donovan Mitchell’s 50 points

ORLANDO, Fla. — Donovan Mitchell had scored 50 points in a playoff game and lost before he did it Friday — in central Florida no less.

Four years ago, about 20 miles west of downtown Orlando on I-4, in the middle of a mostly deserted, allegedly magical kingdom, Mitchell opened the 2020 playoffs in the Disney bubble with an astounding 57 points for the Utah Jazz. They lost by 10 to the Denver Nuggets that day, and then won the next three games of the series — the last a 51-pointer for Mitchell.

The third time was Friday night, against the Orlando Magic. He landed squarely on 50 points in a 103-96 loss to Orlando in Game 6 of this first-round series that, like the last series in which Mitchell scored at least 50 in a game, is going to a Game 7.

All of which is to say, in a bit of a silver lining for the Cavs, at least Mitchell has been in this spot before.

“I think it’s the best two words in sports,” Mitchell said, referring to the Game 7 that awaits his Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando at 1 p.m. Eastern Time Sunday. “No matter what round it is, first, second, third and finals, all the stuff you’ve done for six games really goes out the window. It’s all about desperation, will.”

“Game 7” are two great words for the teams that force them. It means they extended the life of their season by at least another two days; the efforts and strategy and hard work lodged in Game 6 were enough to earn them one more game, at minimum.

That’s the Magic right now. Orlando survived not only Mitchell’s 50-piece, but a whopping 66 paint points by Cleveland. The Magic trailed by five heading into the fourth quarter and then dared someone other than Mitchell to beat them. No one took the bet. Mitchell scored all 18 of the Cavs’ points in the final frame. The Magic outscored him by 12.

The Cavs are the team that has to run it back following a closeout game in which their best player was awesome, and it wasn’t enough. Theirs was a locker room full of players walking with limps, appendages wrapped in ice, blankly staring at phones.

In that moment, it’s hard for that team, the one in the corner currently occupied by the Cavs, to conjure too much excitement for what lies ahead. Sunday of course will be different, or it should be.

There is so much riding on the outcome of Game 7 for the Cavs — way beyond a crack at No. 1 seed Boston. Jobs are on the line. Players’ futures in Cleveland might well be determined. The reputation of the organization is also on the line. On the last day of the regular season, the Cavs hand-picked Orlando as an opponent by tanking in the fourth quarter of a game they were winning by double-digits when it looked like a win might change their first-round opponent.

But if the Cavs dwell on the stakes, or gaze inward at the opportunity missed Friday, to say nothing of the past embarrassments in road losses in this series, they would saddle themselves with extra weight they can’t afford to carry.

Hope weighs less. Lighter is better.

Mitchell lost the only Game 7 he ever played in, to the Nuggets in the bubble. He was so drained and devastated by the loss in the finale to Denver that Jamal Murray, his adversary in the series, picked him up off the court and hugged him. Looking back on the memory, though, Mitchell said that Game 7 experience was “fun as s—,” even though he lost.

Max Strus has played in Game 7s in each of the last two Eastern Conference finals with the Miami Heat. The Heat narrowly lost in 2022 and trounced the Celtics in Game 7 last year to reach the finals.

Marcus Morris, now apparently Cleveland’s starting power forward so long as Jarrett Allen remains out, has four Game 7s to his name. Tristan Thompson, who is also back in the rotation with Allen sidelined, has been on three teams in a Game 7 and won them all. The one in 2016 was pretty good, if memory serves.

Mitchell walked by Georges Niang in the locker room Friday night and commented, “You hit one,” meaning a 3-pointer. Niang also returned to the rotation in Game 6 after his first DNP in Game 5 of the entire season. He is now 2-of-15 from 3 in the series. Niang also has Game 7 experience, having been on the wrong end twice, once with Mitchell in Utah and then last year in the conference semifinals with Philadelphia.

Experience is on the Cavs’ side. So is the home court. Mitchell, now tied with Allen Iverson for the third-most 50-point playoff games in history (trailing only Michael Jordan with eight and Wilt Chamberlain with four), has scored 78 points in the last two games. Darius Garland has re-emerged with 44 points over the same stretch. Strus has six 3s in his last two games. That may not sound like much, but in a series where neither team can make much of anything, Strus is trending upward-ish on the most important shot in the sport. The road team has yet to win in this series.

“Protect home,” Garland said, multiple times, as though he was trying to speak the idea into existence.

Allen, dealing with a rib injury, is questionable at best for Sunday. Evan Mobley played easily his worst game of the series in Game 6, and turned his ankle in the first half. Mitchell, once again, tweaked his left knee. And Caris LeVert played only seven minutes in Game 6. His left knee was wrapped in ice afterwards. He scored … checks notes … one point.

Those are truths, not excuses. At this time of year, there are none of those. Any injury short of a debilitating one can’t have an impact on Game 7, just like Mitchell’s 50 points from Game 6 won’t be added to the scoreboard Sunday.

Everyone starts over. One game to see who moves on. Who is up for it?

“If it’s not 50, maybe it’s 60 (points),” Mitchell said. “Maybe it’s 30, 10 and 10. Whatever the game calls for, it’s my job to figure it out and go for it.

“How do we find ways to continually be relentless? I have no doubt that will show up. I have no doubt Cleveland will show up.”

(Top photo: Gary Bassing / NBAE via Getty Images)