The Cleveland Cavaliers can finally say they are headed to the NBA Playoffs.
On Sunday evening, the organization officially punched its ticket to the postseason for the first time in five years. As has been said repeatedly, and rightfully so, it’s also the first time the Cavs have accomplished such a feat without LeBron James in 25 years.
“I think organizationally this is a big deal to come from where we came from and every year continue to take steps in the right direction, in a positive direction. All the hard work that people in this organization have put in to help get us here should be acknowledged,” Cleveland head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said, following up with the phrase “from the top down.”
Before going into his players, he offered praise for Cavs president Koby Altman, general manager Mike Gansey and the front office, then once more for the training staff and strength and conditioning groups. He later thanked Cleveland’s chairman Dan Gilbert.
“Obviously, our guys have bought into something bigger than themselves. It's unique for a young team to do that at such a rapid pace. Typically, young guys are so worried about figuring out themselves that the team is secondary. We've got a bunch of guys where the team is the primary thing and the only thing. And whatever individual awards, rewards, glory, (it) all comes because of the team's success, and our guys have bought in and committed to that. This is something that has been done as a collective.
“And again, we told the guys to enjoy this, but we ain't done yet. And I think that's the mindset we’ve got to continue to have. We're still on the road of this process, and we’ve got to keep taking it step by step until we get to where we want to be.”
For Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro, Lamar Stevens, Dean Wade and Dylan Windler, all of whom have been with the organization for at least three full years (Garland four), it will be their first time tasting the playoff stage. The same goes for Evan Mobley, who’s only in his second season.
“It means a lot. I mean, [clinching] first playoffs feels good. Excited to play. We still got work to do,” Mobley echoed in agreement with Bickerstaff.
It’s been two years, two months and one week since Jarrett Allen first put on his wine-and-gold jersey. Plagued by injuries, inconsistencies and inexperience, that 2020-21 version of the team finished with a 22-50 record. So, coming from that, a Play-In Tournament appearance that came up empty last year and seeing where the group is now, it’s not surprising that he took some time to smell the roses for one night.
“I think we're able to take a moment to celebrate. This is definitely a big thing for the Cavaliers and for all of us. Not everybody has made it to the playoffs, so we're taking a moment in celebration, but [then] it's time to get back to work,” Allen said.
"Not everyone gets that shot," Mobley added. "Not everyone gets on teams and have team camaraderie like we do, how we play together, everything. So it feels good. We've just got to keep that going."
Allen made sure to credit Altman and his former teammate Lauri Markkanen for helping establish big ball, which has evolved into just him and his partner Mobley holding down the fort.
“The first year I got traded here, it was rough. We didn't have much to play towards the end of the season and then traded for Lauri and then just a lot of things were getting put into place,” said Allen, who also shouted out Kevin Love as being another big-man building block.
“Koby in the front office did a good job to help motivate us, so that we know we have more to play for. And then, year after or that year went on and didn't end it how we wanted to, saying we left a lot on the table. How many times you heard that? But finally this year, we finally are taking everything off the table.”
(Note: It’s also hard not to think of Collin Sexton, who was the first Cavs rookie post-LeBron and worked his way to being one of the top young scoring guards in the NBA. Cleveland doesn’t have Donovan Mitchell to accelerate the process if not for Sexton, who was a crucial part of that trade with the Utah Jazz.)
Having been there from the true beginning of Cleveland’s renaissance in the 2019-20 season, Garland shared the same sentiments.
“It was really tough,” Garland told Cleveland.com on Sunday. “I’m lowkey speechless because I’ve been here for the longest and I’ve seen it from the mud. It’s great to be here now. It’s a step in the right direction. But not done yet.”
Basketball News asked Allen in particular what it took for the Cavs to grow and get over the hump as a franchise.
“Confidence that we can do it. I think that's a big thing in this league. Confidence that you can play with the top teams, confidence that you can beat the teams and make it to the playoffs,” Allen said. “It’s bad to say, but I'm going to say it anyway — there's a lot of teams that don't have the confidence, but every team has very talented guys that can be one of those top players. That's what I believe. Every team has talented players. It's just playing as a team, understanding that you can do it together.”
Unlike the rest of his teammates, Mitchell has not missed the playoffs even once in his career. From his rookie campaign until now, with the Jazz and now the Cavs, he’ll have appeared in six consecutive postseasons.
“You know, you want to appreciate every step along the way. It's definitely a blessing. I don't want to downplay the moment, but in the same token, and I told the guys in there — this is what you just come to expect,” Mitchell said. “You made your first one. Appreciate and enjoy it. Celebrate it for the city, for the organization, for your individual guys who have made it.
“But in the same token, the three seed’s in play — that's the goal. That's the focus. And we should come to a point now where that's expected of us making the playoffs and continuously being here and continuously pushing forward.”
Cleveland currently is seated in the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference with a five-game lead on the New York Knicks, who the team will host on Friday evening. The Cavs have also crept to just one-and-a-half games back of the No. 3 seed Philadelphia 76ers, who all of a sudden have a couple of minor injuries to major players and will have to face competition still fighting for positioning and/or a way into the mix. And even after that is settled, there are higher aspirations.
“We got six more games to play. We're not a finished product. And just the question about where we started, we've got bigger places to go and this is a start for us to be able to clinch a playoff spot. But as we think about this and as we put this team together, we all have one end goal, and those end goals don't come and happen overnight,” Bickerstaff said. “So we've got to continue to get better. We've got to continue to grow. Coaches, players, everybody has to continue, and that's why we say it's, we're not a finished product.”
“I think we can beat anybody,” Garland told Cleveland.com. “That’s how good we are. I’m ready for a long postseason.”
Mitchell is impressed with his younger teammates’ mindset of wanting more than just being there. He brought up his rookie season in Utah where an underdog Jazz squad rallied from a 17-26 record to unexpectedly earn a playoff berth.
To him, in Cleveland, this was the expectation.
“I think the mindset, honestly is just like, ‘Alright, it's just
a step.’ One step to feel like we're not satisfied,” Mitchell said.
“Understanding that we have a bigger goal at stake, not just making
the playoffs, not just winning a first round, second round, third
round. Making it all the way, it's going to be tough. There's going
to be guys teams that have a lot of experience and have been there,
but I think we're up for that challenge. We have that hunger.
"All that's talked about is our experience. But we have that hunger and you see it with this group, and on a night-to-night basis, continuing to prepare and continue to play all the way until June.”