Donovan Mitchell, Cavaliers silence the narratives with gutsy Game 7 win

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CLEVELAND — You want resiliency? You want toughness? Here it is. 

Down 18 at home in an elimination game after a gut-twisting loss in Game 6. Their star player hobbled and exhausted. Their coach fighting for his job. The season 30 minutes from extinction.

It felt over until it didn’t. The ending was catastrophic until it wasn’t. 

Donovan Mitchell can’t get out of the first round. The Cavs can’t win a playoff series without LeBron James. 

Mitchell and the Cavs, two entities seemingly haunted by their past, uniting to unburden their troubles on a young Orlando Magic team that is close to becoming a real problem in the Eastern Conference. But not yet.

If a playoff series doesn’t begin until the road team wins, as we’ve often been led to believe, then this one never really began. And yet it ended so much. 

The Cavs never have to again hear about the New York Knicks last year or their inability to win in the postseason without LeBron James. Mitchell doesn’t have to hear about his first-round flameouts the last two years. 

Through the first five games of this series, Mitchell struggled badly. He simply wasn’t very good for long stretches. In the last two games, despite a hobbled knee, he was the best player on the floor. His 89 points are the second-most in Games 6 and 7 of a series in NBA history. He fell one point shy of Allen Iverson’s record in 2001. 

He pulled and dragged and shoved his teammates higher and carried them further than they’ve ever been the last three days. It took longer than expected, but this is exactly why the Cavs traded for him. To lead and guide the kids. And when they couldn’t do it, he tried doing it all himself in Sunday’s 106-94 Game 7 win. 

One of my biggest gripes for the last two years has been too many players standing around waiting for Mitchell to bail them out. That certainly happened in Game 6 in Orlando, but not this time. 

When he needed the help in Sunday’s Game 7, Isaac Okoro was there to change the game on the defensive end in the third quarter, Sam Merrill was there for a pair of crucial 3s in the second quarter when hope was fading and, yes, Darius Garland was there for a big corner 3-pointer in the fourth quarter that led to a long embrace between the mentor and the mentee. 

Merrill struggled finding a role and consistent minutes despite being the Cavs’ best 3-point weapon in a series that lacked consistent shooting. I asked Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff before the game how he decides how much leash to give Merrill. 

He said it basically depends on how much Garland and Mitchell play together in these games. 

“The more those guys play together, the less opportunity there is for a guy like Sam,” Bickerstaff said. 

Bickerstaff very well might be coaching for his job these days, so he mixed things up a bit Sunday. He started the second quarter with a lineup of Caris LeVert, Tristan Thompson, Georges Niang, Garland and Merrill that played a grand total of eight minutes together all season. He also gave Merrill a longer leash with nine minutes in the second quarter and 11 for the game. Merrill responded with two huge 3s that injected life onto the floor. 

The Cavs have to keep seeking pockets of minutes for Merrill moving forward. At least give him a couple of shots to see if it’s falling. When it’s not, move on. When he’s hot, he can swing a series as he did in the second quarter Sunday. 

Garland had another horrendous shooting day. He missed 10 of his first 11 shots. When he missed a corner 3 midway through the fourth, Okoro grabbed the rebound and gave it to Mitchell, who immediately swung it back to Garland again in the corner. He made it the second time. 

Mitchell passed up a layup in the process, so I asked him if the pass back to Garland in the corner was intentional to get Garland another look or if it was the right basketball play. He said both, but primarily it was intentional. He could’ve gotten the layup, but he wanted Garland to shoot it again. 

Garland scored 10 points in the fourth quarter with three assists. He didn’t turn the ball over once. 

The Cavs are going to need a much better version of Garland moving forward than what they got against the Magic. Mitchell kept emphasizing that the Cavs haven’t accomplished anything yet, and he’s right.

“When they traded for me, it wasn’t just to win a first-round series,” Mitchell said. 

It was for more, much more. But this was an important step to get to the more. The task gets incredibly tougher now. The Boston Celtics have been the best team in the East all season. 

Maybe this is all they needed. Maybe a first-round win, dimming the lights a bit and outrunning their history is enough to allow them to play more freely in the weeks ahead. We’ll know soon enough. 

It’s May now. LeBron is at home, while the Cavaliers play on.

(David Liam Kyle /NBAE via Getty Images)

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