The playoffs are a mere formality at this stage for the Cleveland Cavaliers, whose late-season focus is getting their key components aligned for what they hope is a prolonged postseason run.
In their 116-114 road victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday, the Cavaliers (47-28) flashed what makes them so very potent. Donovan Mitchell, an offseason acquisition who changed the trajectory of the franchise, had a team-high 31 points to keep his electric season rolling along.
When Mitchell missed a last-second free throw that would have knotted the score, Caris LeVert and Isaac Okoro teamed on the game-winning 3-pointer. It was a collective effort for Cleveland, which has won nine of their last 12 games and will host the Houston Rockets on Sunday.
Central to the victory was the performance of second-year forward Evan Mobley, who did a bit of everything with 26 points, 16 rebounds, three assists, four blocks and a steal. His influence on both ends of the court continues to resonate for the ascendant Cavaliers.
“He is one of the most versatile defensive bigs in our game,” Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff said of Mobley. “I can’t think of many that are better than him. A guy that has the ability to guard post-ups, to guard and protect the rim and then switch and guard smalls on the perimeter and keep them in front of him and make it extremely difficult to score. We’re fortunate to have him with us.
“These are the things we talk about when we brag on Evan about what the future is going to look like for him, and he just continues to take steps and prove us right.”
Uneven play undermined the Rockets (18-56) once again on Friday. After playing a hotly-contested five-point loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday, the Rockets were blown off the court in the rematch, falling 151-114 to equal their largest margin of defeat of the season. Houston also absorbed a 37-point road loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Feb. 15.
Defensively, the Rockets were nonexistent, allowing Memphis to shoot 61.3 percent overall while making a franchise-record 25 3-pointers. Grizzlies reserve Luke Kennard set an individual franchise mark with 10 3-pointers, underscoring an impressive shooting display by Memphis.
The Rockets’ fourth consecutive loss didn’t reflect their recent play. Houston won five of eight games prior to this latest skid and was routinely competitive in each contest. The Rockets offered little in the way of fight against the Grizzlies, however — an unexpected response this late in the season.
“We’ve just got to learn from this,” said Rockets rookie Tari Eason, who matched his career high of 21 points in the loss. “It’s unfortunate to see us lose this way, this badly. But all these losses are lessons. Regardless of the score, we need to figure out what to take from this.
“You have to be ready at all times. It’s incredibly hard to win in this league. … Just knowing that every game, you can’t take it for granted. There’s not going to be an easy night, there’s not going to be an off night. You’ve got to bring it every single time you step on the court.”