CLEVELAND, Ohio — Donovan Mitchell’s two worst games since joining the Cavaliers have come against Eastern Conference nemesis Toronto.
Just a coincidence or something more to it?
“When you foul the whole game — and they’re really good at it — they can foul the whole game and the refs aren’t going to call it on each possession,” Mitchell said following Cleveland’s 118-107 loss to Toronto . “Gotta give them credit. But we knew what we were coming into, and we just didn’t answer the bell. They’re physical. They kicked our ass.”
The Cavs have only lost 12 games all season. Three are against the Raptors, who clearly present an unfavorable matchup for Cleveland — and apparently Mitchell as well.
In Friday’s setback, Mitchell — the NBA’s eighth-leading scorer who had poured in at least 20 points in nine straight games — mustered just 12 points on 4 of 16 (25%) from the field and 3 of 12 (25%) from 3-point range in 35 uncharacteristic minutes. It’s his worst statistical shooting night since Jan. 1, 2022, against the Golden State Warriors.
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This clunker comes on the heels of last month’s nightmarish performance in Toronto — a game in which Mitchell finished with a season-low eight points on 3-of-11 (27.2%) shooting, including 1 of 5 (20%) from 3 – point range.
“I think as a whole coming in, I wouldn’t say we just expected them to roll over because we know Toronto is never that type of team, but we came out expecting certain things to go our way, waiting for foul calls that weren’t “There,” Mitchell said. “They were the aggressors. We were on our heels the whole night. Little things like putting ourselves in tight spaces, stupid turnovers, missing free throws, you could just tell we weren’t where we needed to be as a team. That’s tough. But it’s one game and we’ll learn from it and move on.”
Actually, it’s three. At least against Toronto, which already claimed the season series in Friday’s triumph and will go for the sweep on Feb. 26. Its the only East opponent to win at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse this season.
The Cavs played well in the regular season opener north of the border on Oct. 19 — even though All-Star point guard Darius Garland suffered a nasty eye injury as a result of the Raptors’ physicality, causing him to stay in the locker room for the final three quarters. The Cavs just didn’t finish that game, with Toronto rallying in the fourth quarter for a gutsy three-point victory.
Since then, the matchup has been lopsided.
The Raptors have been ahead by at least 20 points and won both contests by double digits. They have led for 87 of a possible 96 minutes.
“They hold, they grab, they bump and if you’re just walking through your offense, the referees aren’t going to call it,” Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff said. “Even though we play at our tempo and our pace, the cuts and things like that in the half court have to be fast and you’ve got to keep moving them. When you penetrate, they’re gonna send everybody to the paint. If you try to play in those small spaces, it’s an opportunity for them to be physical, to grab and hold and bump.”
The Raptors were called for 20 fouls while Cleveland was whistled for 17. In all, the Cavs attempted 12 more free throws (30-18).
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Raptors 6-foot-7 swingman OG Anunoby, who scored a game-high-tying 26 points, also had the primary defensive assignment against Mitchell once again. Anunoby showed why he’s getting Defensive Player of the Year attention.
According to NBA.com matchup data, while guarding Mitchell this season, the long, tough, active, handsy menace has limited Mitchell to just 22 total points on 8-of-20 (40%) shooting.
“I’m playing through most of his shots, and he had open looks that he typically makes,” Bickerstaff said of Mitchell’s struggles Friday night. “They’re a good defensive team. They’re physical. They’re rangy. I don’t want to take anything away from them. But I do think he got his shots. I just don’t think they went tonight.”
After the game, the discourse was consistent. The Cavs just had a bad night.
They didn’t play hard enough. They didn’t play smart enough either. Their top-ranked defense was nonexistent, allowing the NBA’s worst 3-point shooting team to make a season-high 19 triples while hitting 51.4% of those looks. Even though they had a clear size advantage on the interior, the Cavs were repeatedly outworked on the boards, giving up 11 offensive rebounds and 18 second-chance points. Their sloppy turnovers helped fuel the Raptors’ transition game, as Toronto finished with 27 fast-break points, including 22 in a dazzling first half.
So perturbed with the team’s lack of effort, Bickerstaff benched his starters less than three minutes into the second half. Bickerstaff relies on that fivesome to set a tone, both immediately after tipoff and then early in the third quarter. The starters — Mitchell, Garland, Isaac Okoro, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen — failed to do that Friday night.
The wing-heavy, versatile Raptors scored 39 points in the first quarter. They opened the third on an 11-2 run, building a game-high 26-point lead. They were outhustled and outplayed throughout. Mitchell had four points at the time of his benching. He tallied eight more in a late-game comeback attempt that fell woefully short.
The Cavs came out flat, dug an early hole and got buried beneath an avalanche of 3s. Some of it was Toronto. Some of it was them.
“I don’t think we were competing at the level you need to compete to beat a team like Toronto,” Bickerstaff said. “It was easy to see. They’re a better team than their record shows and we have more respect for them than that, but we just didn’t get it done. The style that they play, the physicality that they play with, if you are high on your horse, they’ll knock you down pretty quickly and I think they showed us that tonight.”
Or sometimes an opponent just has your number.
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