Cavs Advance To Eastern Conference Semis, Without LeBron, For First Time Since 1993

The Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Orlando Magic 106-94 in Game 7 to win a first-round playoff series, without LeBron James on the roster, which hasn’t been done by the franchise since 1993.

Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers, Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic, NBA

In a winner-take-all elimination game, Magic’s up-and-coming star, Paolo Banchero didn’t go down without putting up a fight, as he contributed 38 points (10-for-28 FG), 16 rebounds, and three steals, however, that was still not enough to win on the road in Cleveland; each team playing on their home court this series won every game in the first-round matchup.

In his first ever playoff series, the 2022 first-overall pick averaged an impressive 27.0 points (45.6% FG; 40% 3PT), 8.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 1.1 steals.

“It was a hell of an environment and probably the most intense game I’ve ever played in my life,” Banchero said. “Every possession, the toll it takes on your body and your mind is immense.”

The Cavs defense stepped up in a big way, as the Magic’s second and third-best scorers Franz Wagner and Jalen Suggs were held to a combined 3-of-28 shooting from the field. Moreover, as a team, in the second half, the Magic shot 11-for-43 from the field (25.6%) and 3-for-15 from deep (20%). 

The Cavs trailed by as much as 18 points in the second quarter, but were ultimately saved by Donovan Mitchell once again, as he followed up his 50-point performance from last game with 39 points, nine rebounds and five assists in Sunday afternoon’s closeout game. With this in mind, it would be nice if Mitchell, who scored all 18 of the Cavs 4th quarter points in Game 6, got some help in the scoring department from his teammates. To note, Mitchell’s counterpart Darius Garland had just 2 points on 1-of-10 shooting prior to the 4th quarter.

After the game Mitchell was asked by reporters on what he said to his backcourt partner, “I told him, I don’t give a damn what happened in the past quarter and a half, you trust your work, I mean trust what you’ve done, trust who you are… I understand what he was feeling, you know it’s like ‘I can’t get anything right.’… We trust you, believe in yourself. And you know there’s been moments where he’s done the same to me. You know we have that relationship.”

The pep talk seemingly worked, as halfway through the fourth quarter, Garland sank a second-chance corner three to put the Cavs back up by double-digits, which made the crowd erupt. In view of his teammates’ encouragement, Garland found his groove, scoring 10 of his 12 points in the last six minutes of the game.

“To see him respond like that when he hit that three, I knew like he’s back.” Mitchell said on Garland.

In the last two games, Mitchell, who they call “Spida,” is averaging 44.5 points, and noticeably has given it all he’s got, while physically beat up from driving to the basket.

Notably, in a Game 6 loss, Mitchell also broke a record, as he had 36 points in the paint, which is the most paint points by a guard in a playoff game in the last 25 years, since Kobe Bryant (30). 

“I’m tired of losing in the first round,” Mitchell stated postgame. “You work too hard. We work too hard. That was my mindset… for me, just be in attack mode. I’m battling through what I’m battling through, but I could battle through it and figure it out, or rehab it for the next three or four months. That’s where I’m at mentally.”

Throughout the game and much of the series, Mitchell has been seen walking with a slight limp, as he has reportedly dealt with lingering soreness from a knee injury for much of the season. Not to mention, although it hasn’t been diagnosed by a doctor, the superstar probably is dealing with back pain, which may be a result of “carrying the team.” 

Mitchell has now led the Cavs to move onto the Eastern Conference semifinals round, where they will face the first-seeded Celtics (64-18), who had the best record in the NBA this year and also led the second-seeded Knicks by more than 14 games in the standings. 

With 57 seconds left, the Cavs were up 104-92, and the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse crowd started chanting “we want Boston,” in which Mitchell quieted the crowd saying “no not yet.” 

To emphasize the Celtics’ dominance this season, they won more games by 40+ (4) and 30+ points this season (10) than they had 10 point-deficit losses (2), that is to say, they also matched those two losses, by winning two games by more than 50, including a 62-point victory over the Warriors (140-88, March 3), third-largest victory in franchise history.  To point out, what makes the Celtics so hard to beat, is their efficiency on both ends of the floor. During the regular season, the Celtics offense ranked 2nd in points per game (120.6), while also being 5th in opponents’ points per game (109.2). This led to the Celtics having a league-best scoring margin average of +11.4. 

Important to keep in mind, the Celtics may be without a key part of their team for this second-round series, as Kristaps Porzingis is dealing with a soleus strain in his right calf that he sustained during Game 4 of the first-round series vs. the Heat. Porzingis is averaging 20.1 points (51.6% FG; 37.5% 3PT), 7.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.9 blocks in 30 minutes per game this season.

The Latvian big man is still expected to travel with the team, “There’s no specific date, obviously,” Porzingis stated when talking about his return to the court. “It’s still pretty early. I think it will be clear once I start doing more stuff… But yeah. Not super close yet.” 

That is to say, even without their 7-foot stretch forward, the Celtics still have two prolific scorers in Jayson Tatum (26.9 ppg) and Jaylen Brown (23 ppg) to carry the load. Not to mention, guard Derrick White has proven himself to be a reliable third option, stepping up in a big way in his seventh-season, in particular, he has averaged 31.5 ppg (59% FG; 52% 3PT) the past two playoff games when Porzingis was injured.

The Celtics and Cavs frontcourt may both be short-handed heading into the next round, as Center Jarrett Allen missed the past three games vs. the Magic with bruised ribs, after taking an elbow to his rib cage during game 4.

Coming off a disappointing first-round playoff series last year vs. the Knicks, Allen has averaged 17.0 points (67.6% FG), 13.8 rebounds, 1.3 steals, and 1.0 blocks in four games this postseason so far. In regards to how Allen’s injury may affect the Cavs moving forward, the team may lean more heavily on Evan Mobley, who put up 11 points and 16 rebounds in a Game 7 victory. With Allen off the floor, Mobley has been the anchor defensively for the Cavs, as he recorded five blocks in each of the last two games. 

The Cavs’ defense all year has proven to be tough, but the Celtics’ offense certainly has a whole lot of firepower, scoring a league-best 49 points off of 16.5 three-pointers made per game this season. With considering this, the Cavs are top-10 in the NBA in least amount of 3’s yielded to opponents per game (12.5), while also giving up the seventh-least amount of points per game to opponents this season (110.2). 

As already highlighted, the last time the Cleveland Cavaliers advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals without LeBron, was 1993, a year when the Cavs won 3-2 in a best of 5 first-round series vs. the New Jersey Nets. Then in the next round, that Cleveland team went on to face Michael Jordan and the Bulls, in which they ultimately got swept 4-0 by Chicago, who would later go on to be crowned NBA champions for the third straight year.

The Cavaliers are hoping for a different result 31 years later, as they will take on the Celtics next round; Game 1 will be played in Boston, Tuesday May 7 at 7:00 pm ET. 

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