CLEVELAND — The Pacers learned the hard way that they shouldn’t poke the bear. And the Cavs are getting used to seeing what the bear can do.
Trailing by double-digits to Indiana entering the fourth quarter Friday night, Donovan Mitchell took over, hitting a flurry of 3s and a few layups to lift the Cavs to a 118-112 come-from-behind win. He equaled the Pacers’ fourth-quarter point total (18) by himself and just about single-handedly led the charge, which included a face-to-face held ball tie-up with Pacers guard Bennedict Mathurin that sparked the comeback.
“You don’t poke the bear, and they poked him and he went on and did what he did,” said Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff. “But it got everybody going, that’s the thing. That’s what leadership is. the ability to impact others as well.”
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The Cavs trailed for most of the night, as their normally strong defense was torched. The Pacers entered the fourth quarter with 94 points and an 11-point lead. Throughout the night, the Cavs consistently being down was met with quite a bit of trash talk between both teams. The loose ball tie-up with Mathurin was, in part, about sending a message.
“Yeah, it’s just about toughness,” Mitchell said. I was willing to get a technical foul for that. I think for me, leadership comes in different forms, and that’s one of them. … I think for me, [it’s] just trying to set that tone that we’re just not gonna back down and that’s really all that was.”
From that point on, the Cavs’ defensive energy heightened. Even within a 41-point night, that play was the key.
“That’s just our fight. I knew Don was not going to let that ball go,” said Darius Garland, who had 20 points and 10 assists in the win. “When we saw that, we were like, ‘OK, gotta turn up the physicality and turn up the aggressiveness.’ That’s what we did.”
The Cavs’ top-tier defense was being torn to shreds by the Pacers. And Mitchell, especially, was being scored on far too often for his own liking. Mitchell said after the game that it was in the third quarter when he knew he’d have to enter takeover mode. It wasn’t just the scoring flurry, as his own defense was needed to slow down Indiana’s pace.
“My problem was I kept getting scored on and then I just was like, ‘All right, I’m just gonna score back’ and that’s not great basketball. So I really had to like lock in and be able to get stops. … That really got me going because I’m letting my my teammates down. Offense comes and goes, but defense, like you can’t do one thing and not the other. You got to be able to do both sides and that was for me when I started to try and be more aggressive.”
Donovan Mitchell notches third 40-point game of 2022-23 season
Mitchell taking over a fourth quarter is becoming a sight the Cavs are enjoying. He also dominated the fourth quarter in a win against LeBron James and the Lakers recently. Friday night featured his third 40-point game of the season and the sixth time he poured in at least 37. He has proven to be one of the most valuable offseason additions around the league.
“He is that good that he can put you on your back when you’re not at your best,” Bickerstaff said. “He has the ability to carry an offense in moments where there is that struggle. His teammates understand it and they know how to get him the ball. It’s never about him. It’s always about what does the team need in this moment and I think that’s why it’s easy for the guys to go out and help him and compete with him and help put him in spots to create opportunities.”
But it doesn’t always feel like Mitchell has the game in his hands, which is by design. Because of his ability to play within the Cavs’ offense without forcing anything, Caris LeVert didn’t even realize he had hit the 40-point mark.
“To be honest, I didn’t even know he had 40 until he came into the locker room, just because of the way he does it. It’s all within the flow of the game,” LeVert said. “Nothing is really forced. When you’re as good as he is, you make it look easy like that. We’re definitely blessed to have him on our team. Not a lot of people can do that and make it look that easy.”
For a quarter, Mitchell led the Cavs offensively, defensively and emotionally, a performance that garnered M-V-P chants as he shot a few free throws late in the game, one it looked like Cleveland was going to lose all night. A bear was poked, and the Pacers flew out of Cleveland without a win as a result.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.