Outside the visitors' locker room at TD Garden, the Cleveland Cavaliers' vibes were palpable. They were celebrating an overtime win against the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics in the fifth game of the regular season as if it were the franchise's first playoff victory since LeBron James left in 2018.
If you've been around NBA locker rooms long enough, you can download a team's chemistry pretty quickly. Some young ones take losses too lightly, like they expect them. Some veteran ones are all business, in and out, off to the next win. Some are silently glued to their phones, worn out from failing to meet expectations.
Others, well, they are like the Cavaliers. It is early, yet, but they like each other. Kevin Love holds court, the revered veteran at the center of the room. Jarrett Allen jokes about someone grabbing them Bud Lights. Donovan Mitchell, the three-time All-Star, repeatedly defers to 22-year-old backcourt mate Darius Garland as "our lead guard." More than any of that, they believe in each other and their ability to contend together.
The subject of this celebration was Caris LeVert, who scored 41 points in the victory, his highest total since Cleveland acquired him for a lottery-protected first-round draft pick and a pair of second-round picks at the February trade deadline. LeVert emerged from the locker room sporting the Junkyard Dog chain, complete with an oversized gold-encrusted Cavaliers logo, given after each win to "the guy who does the dirty work."
That's the thing. LeVert didn't just drop 41 points. He got to the line 12 times. He dished seven assists. He grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter to help the Cavaliers erase a late four-point deficit. He swiped three steals, including one off Jayson Tatum to seal the deal in overtime.
LeVert's position on the wing, between pairs of dynamic guards and rim-protecting bigs, is key to unlocking Cleveland's championship potential this season. The other four spots belong to Mitchell, Garland, Allen and second-year 7-footer Evan Mobley, all of whom are locked into long-term contracts on All-NBA upside.
The keys to Cavaliers contention
Conventional wisdom figured Mobley's evolution as their ultimate avenue to a title. He has all the tools of a young Kevin Garnett, save for the maniacal intensity. Mobley gets pushed around a bit inside, and he needs to find his role within an offense that also features another non-shooting 7-footer, at least until he finds his range, but his defensive instincts and the length and athleticism to fulfill them make him dangerous already. It is too much to ask Mobley to realize it all over the next five months, but there is room to grow in that time.
Mitchell's step into superstardom early this season, when he is averaging career highs of 31.9 points (51/45/86 shooting splits) and 5.8 assists per game, presents another path out of the East. His scoring efficiency is where we imagined it might settle after his debut season for the Utah Jazz, and he genuinely feels the need to recommit to his defensive potential after criticism of his playoff performance on that end.
"The biggest thing for me is trying to take that challenge defensively," Mitchell said from the TD Garden podium. "This is probably the hardest I've worked on the defensive end in my career since college, and I've still got a long way to improve. ... I think that's the biggest thing, being able to do it on both sides."
That Mitchell's prowess as a scorer and playmaker stagnated in Utah, and he let his defense slip on a perennial 50-win team that desperately needed it on the perimeter, should cause some concern about how he might regress once the sun sets on his honeymoon phase in Cleveland. Garland can fill the creative void, but he carries similar concerns about his defensive ability. It will take time for them to construct a cohesive crunch-time strategy with one ball between the two of them, but the offensive foundation is solid.
Only three players have run more pick-and-rolls per game than Mitchell's 11, and only Stephen Curry (1.37) and Luka Doncic (1.22) have netted better than his 1.13 points per possession among those who run seven or more a night. Garland could join him in that neighborhood once his shooting percentages find their level.
The issue is just the opposite in the frontcourt, where Allen and Mobley have the paint on lockdown, and anyone who dares challenge them inside of 10 feet gets one shot at it, because the Cavaliers are the best rebounding team in the league. That safety net can mask much of their backcourt's defensive deficiencies.
The lane is equally as crowded on the other end, since the two bigs have made 11 of 36 shot attempts (31%) from midrange and beyond in 11 games. The Cavs haven't generated a ton of shots at the rim or from the corners, and their efficiency will suffer when they stop making 44% of their pull-up 3s. They have scored at a rate that would easily lead the NBA with just one of their bigs on the floor, but that figure craters to a bottom-four number (106.5 points per 100 possessions) when both Allen and Mobley are on the court.
The playoffs expose those weaknesses further.
Still, Cleveland is 8-3, owners of the East's second-best record and ranked third on both sides of the ball, even after consecutive losses on the longest road trip of their season. Their net rating of 8.9 points per 100 possessions is nearly a point better than the conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks. They have had a fairly favorable schedule, but Garland missed six of those games, and they have twice beaten the Celtics in overtime. Cleveland faces its first test against the defending champion Golden State Warriors on Friday.
"As a group, coming into this new team, they're farther along than I thought," said Mitchell. "I didn't know what to expect, but I'm like, 'Wow.' Evan's getting it, [Allen]'s getting it, and it's a testament to the vets and the guys they had last year. I'm just trying to add my piece to it and not just come in and take over."
In the broadest sense, as Yahoo Sports colleague Dan Devine put it, "What if Mitchell's Utah teams had a young Mike Conley and a second, more versatile Rudy Gobert?" That's safely in the category of contention. They were on pace to win 51 games last season without Mitchell, before injuries one by one claimed Mobley for a handful of games, Garland for eight, LeVert for nine and Allen for the final month of the year.
Mending Cleveland's wings and making them fly
It still might not be enough to win the whole thing. Mitchell's Jazz never found the wing who made it all work, and they hit their ceiling in the second round of the playoffs. The Cavaliers want to reach theirs in the Finals, but the collection of Cedi Osman, Dean Wade and Isaac Okoro leaves plenty to be desired, even if Osman and Wade are shooting a combined 49% on a dozen combined 3-point attempts per game.
Their choice on the wing is too often between defense and one-dimensional offense. This is the conundrum that led to speculation last season about LeBron James' second homecoming to Cleveland, and it is the same idea that spurred the LeVert acquisition. It is mostly a wings league, and the Cavaliers are fully aware.
So, too, is LeVert. Immediately following Cleveland's disappointing end to last season, he reached out to Los Angeles-based performance coach Mike Guevara, whose strength and mobility work with Jrue Holiday and Spencer Dinwiddie, among other NBA clients, has helped maximize careers plagued early by injuries.
LeVert's goal was to play 70 games for the first time since his second season on the Brooklyn Nets, when he was still a reserve. Injuries have plagued him since suffering three Jones fractures in his left foot over a span of 22 months during his tenure at the University of Michigan. Just as his NBA career was taking off in November 2018, he dislocated his right foot. Even when his feet and legs weren't failing LeVert, the Indiana Pacers discovered a cancerous tumor during a routine post-trade physical, and he had his kidney removed.
That is behind him now. ("No problems since then," he told Yahoo Sports.) So, too, is a minor shoulder procedure, which only slightly delayed his work with Guevara and skills coach Alex Bazzell this summer.
Guevara "started from square one" with LeVert, "reverting back to rudimentary, fundamental movement skill that I would teach someone who's brand new to training." Together, they mastered his movement, regained his mobility and reprogrammed his central nervous system's hypersensitive "emotional attachment to pain."
"He committed," said Guevara, who, with his wife during the pandemic, developed an app, GBG (Greatness Breeds Greatness) Hoops, which helps athletes develop strength and pliability, in coordination with their skills, as preventative measures against injury. "Every day, on time, never missed a single day, never called in sick, never said, 'Ah, I can't make it,' and the freakin' dude is leading the team in minutes."
"It's super intense," LeVert told Yahoo Sports of his first summer working with Guevara. "It was something I've never really done before, as far as training. It was really based on keeping my quickness throughout the full season and just staying healthy, because for me I've been hurt a lot in my career. Injuries have kind of derailed me a little bit, so a lot of it was just based on being able to take the physicality of a full NBA season. It's paying off right now. We're still working as the season goes. It's a journey game by game."
The trade for Mitchell energized LeVert when it might have discouraged another player who is eligible for a contract extension, only to become the subject of discussion about who should even start at small forward.
"This is my position," LeVert told Guevara. "This is my job. There is no debate."
"That was his reaction," Guevara said of when the Cavaliers dealt for Mitchell. "He didn't say anything self-serving at all. He said, 'We're going to be an amazing team.' Obviously, if you look at them, he was right."
Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff called LeVert their best player in training camp, which is saying something on a team that entered the season with four players who realistically hoped for an All-Star berth. LeVert is playing the hardest defense of his career and averaging 14 points, six assists and five rebounds in 36 minutes per game so far this season. If his anomalistic 2-point field-goal percentage (35%) can rise without his 3-point accuracy (43%) dipping too far in the opposite direction, he is exactly the player they need.
"I played against Caris in Brooklyn, and nothing against him last year — he obviously had injuries — but I think this is the Caris we all know," Mitchell added after LeVert's 41-point outburst in Boston. "He looks healthy, he looks different. When you're playing with injuries for a year and a half, or whatever it was, your intensity level, your passion for basketball rises, because you realize how much it sucks being out.
"Every single drill, every single shootaround, every single play, he's consistently going the hardest and making hard cuts to the point that I'm like, 'Bro, relax, we've got a game tonight.' You see the work he continuously puts in, and he was due. This is the Caris we all know, and if we can get this, his comeback will be huge. He's been an animal for us on defense, on offense. He led by example, and we followed suit."
It is that commitment from the fifth man in the starting lineup that can lift the rest of the roster to meet Mitchell on his climb to the NBA mountaintop, even before Mobley makes his leap. If the Cavaliers still felt one piece away from the outside looking in, chemistry is bonding their existing pieces into a contender.
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