PHILADELPHIA — With palpable excitement surrounding the team and “immaculate vibes” in the air during the early days of training camp, the Cleveland Cavaliers wanted to see how they would look against an actual NBA opponent.
This wasn’t just any opponent either. It was the star-studded, championship-hopeful Philadelphia 76ers who won 51 games last season and made significant improvements to boost their title chances over the summer. The Cavs looked like they had enough talent to compete — when the games start to count — even though they couldn’t hold the lead and lost Wednesday night, 113-112.
Forget the final score. Doesn’t matter this time of year. Playoff trips aren’t solidified in October.
The usual preseason qualifiers apply. Always do. But it would be tough for Cleveland to not feel good about Wednesday night’s performance. At least on the offensive end.
By the end of the first half — before both teams turned their starters into spectators — the Cavs had exploded for 64 points, buried 10 3-pointers, dished out 15 assists on 23 made shots, had at least one basket from nine of the 10 guys who logged first-half playing time and led by four points.
Surgical. Precise. Selfless. Dynamic.
Cleveland’s new-look All-Star backcourt — Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell — looked as advertised, finding an early rhythm and repeatedly making Philadelphia’s defense look flummoxed against a spaced-out court, attacking drivers and lethal pick-and-roll actions with All-Star center Jarrett Allen.
“I thought it was pretty seamless the way they played together, the way that the ball moved and everybody got involved,” Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff said following the game. “And then again, the ball is going to find them later in the clock anyway. As long as we play in the same style we want to play where it isn’t just based on one guy, but it’s based on the team, I think it’s gonna work out well for us.”
Prior to Wednesday’s matchup, Mitchell spoke about being a bit nervous. It was his first game with new teammates following the summer’s blockbuster trade with the Utah Jazz that brought Mitchell to Cleveland in exchange for Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Ochai Agbaji, three unprotected first-round picks and two picks swaps.
In 19 minutes, Mitchell poured in 16 points on 6 of 9 shooting and 3 of 4 from 3-point range to go with a team-high five assists, two rebounds and one steal. Garland chipped in with 12 points and four assists in 15 minutes. It was a glimpse into what Cleveland’s front office envisioned when stunning the league and shifting the Eastern Conference landscape. It’s why there’s so much hope for this coming season.
“I think we did a lot of things well,” Mitchell said. “We really didn’t call them many plays in the first half and it just speaks to our ball movement, playing together, trusting each other. It looked better than I anticipated. Not to say we haven’t done anything well in practice, but typically the offense in a situation like this is kind of last thing that kind of comes with the group. That was really good to see.”
“Ball was moving. A lot of guys had open shots. Going to help a lot when me and Donovan are on the floor,” Garland added. “Having another guy on the floor like him is super cool, just relaxing. Just let the game flow. It was easy. It was fun. Everybody got involved.”
Still, this was only the first exhibition game. There are three more before the regular season opener in Toronto on Oct. 19. The Cavs didn’t even have their expected opening night starting lineup Wednesday.
Four of those five spots are locked in. Garland. Mitchell. Allen. Evan Mobley — the second-year standout who didn’t travel to Philadelphia because of a sprained right ankle suffered at practice over the weekend. The small forward spot remains up for grabs — a six-player competition that will continue over the next few weeks.
Caris LeVert got the first shot on Wednesday. He looked like an intriguing fit next to Garland and Mitchell in what would be an offense-heavy, three-guard setup. LeVert finished with seven points, three assists and one rebound in 14 minutes. Dean Wade, another player battling for that starter role, had 11 points and five rebounds.
With Mobley out, veteran Kevin Love temporarily stepped in at power forward. He tallied nine points, going 3 of 6 from beyond the arc while also grabbing seven boards.
None of Cleveland’s starters played in the second half. All five spent the final 24 minutes shouting instructions from the bench and celebrating big plays from guys fighting for roster spots or playing time.
If Wednesday night was a preview, plenty more thrills lie ahead.
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