LOS ANGELES — In the corner of an otherwise empty Cavaliers locker room, Donovan Mitchell was talking to — and showing, by stepping around and displaying how to come off screens — young point guard Darius Garland about how to handle switching pick-and-rolls. How to take advantage of the switch and get better shots, or get the ball to scorers like Mitchell himself.
This was 25 minutes after a late Clippers 17-1 run changed the completion of Tuesday night’s Los Angeles win, handing the Cavaliers their second loss of the season. With the game on the line, Los Angeles forced Cleveland into a matchup-based, playoff style of game. It threw the young Cavaliers off balance.
The Cavaliers were not down after the loss. It was a teaching moment.
“We’ll learn from this. They did a lot of things that we’ll see come playoff time and, you know, it was a test and there are things we did well and things we can get better at,” Mitchell said.
“Through all the hype, we’re a team that’s still building, we understand that,” Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “So as a coach, you don’t expect to win ’em all. You expect to have some adversity and some ups and downs. But it’s what happens next.”
The young Cavaliers have been one of the best stories in the NBA this season, racing out to an 8-2 record with a top-five offense and defense. The Mitchell trade has looked like the steal of the summer, he has averaged 31.2 points and six assists a game, shooting 45.1% from 3 and playing like an All-NBA guard.
Sometimes lost in the hype is the fact this is still a new team, a young team — its core four of Mitchell, Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen are all 26 or younger — and they are still figuring things out. Part of that is what playoff basketball will look like.
Part of that is not making mistakes in crunch time and still getting the ball to their stars: Mitchell knocked down two 3-pointers off of Garland assists in the first :38 seconds of the fourth quarter, but the Clippers focused their defense on him and Mitchell got just two shots off the rest of the game. Instead, it was a lot of Garland and he struggled, going 1-of-4 in the frame. It felt like in the face of pressure, and with a lead, the Cavaliers went into a “prevent offense” and started actions too late in the clock.
“The biggest thing was, they sped us up,” Mitchell said. “They did a lot of things with switching, you know, we tried to run some actions and we’ve got to do a better job — all of us, myself and [Garland] — when we bring the ball up bringing up with more time on the clock.”
“Six turnovers in the fourth quarter, which, again, against a team of this caliber is hard to overcome,” Bickerstaff said. “We fouled in the backcourt multiple times and they were able to just walk up and get to the free throw line. So things like that we’ll fix.”
And that was the attitude in Cleveland — it’s a learning experience.
The Cavaliers know they are good, they know they have something potentially exceptional. They also know there’s a lot to learn, a lot of good habits to build between now and then.
It’s about what happens next — and Bickerstaff has his Cavaliers focused on that.