The Cavaliers have learned from last year's collapse

MIAMI HEAT CENTER Bam Adebayo came flying in from behind for a rebound late in the fourth quarter of their March 10 game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, inadvertently scraping Cavs center Jarrett Allen across the eye in the process. The 6-foot-11 All-Star immediately fell to the ground and covered his face while teammates surrounded him and the training staff leaped off the bench.

When Allen headed toward the locker room with 3 minutes, 53 seconds remaining in the game -- and a month remaining in the season -- the Cavaliers felt a sense of deja vu.

It was almost exactly one year ago when Allen exited a game against the Toronto Raptors and was diagnosed with a left quad contusion and a left middle finger fracture. He went on to miss the remainder of the regular season, and the Cavaliers went on to miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.

So when the Cavaliers boarded the team plane in Miami, they braced for the worst. Instead, an MRI the next day revealed no structural damage to Allen's right eye, and coach J.B. Bickerstaff could breathe a sigh of relief.

"Anytime you take a shot to the eye like that, there's so many different things that can happen," Bickerstaff said before the team's next game in Charlotte, North Carolina. "We're all extremely fortunate that it wasn't much more."

Allen's right eye was bloodshot in the aftermath with a bruise below the eyelid. But after missing the next four games, Allen practiced with the team Monday without even needing goggles. He returned Tuesday, putting up 12 points and 14 rebounds in a 115-109 win over the Brooklyn Nets.

With Allen back in the fold, Cleveland is a near lock to make the playoffs for the first time since 2018 -- and the first time without LeBron James on the roster since 1998. The Cavaliers enter Thursday's game at Brooklyn in fourth place in the East, six games up on seventh-place Miami. Finishing in the top six would guarantee them the playoff spot they failed to secure a year ago.

And while last season's team would have been happy making the playoffs -- it missed out after losing a pair of play-in games -- this year's team, led by offseason addition Donovan Mitchell, has its sights set on higher goals.

The last time a Cavaliers team without James advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs: 1993.

"I think we have a group of guys that are ready for it," Mitchell told ESPN. "At the end of the day, you've got to go through those things and learn those things. It's just a matter of how quick we learn, and that's what's going to be the predictor of our success -- how quick we figure things out. Because some of us have been there, some of us haven't."

WHILE IT'S EASY to point to the fractured middle finger that cost Allen the final 18 games of the regular season as the turning point in the Cavaliers' 2021-22 season, their slide had actually already begun before they lost their star center. After improving to 35-21 and moving into a tie for second in the Eastern Conference on Feb. 11, the Cavs lost six of their next seven games and had fallen to sixth by the time of Allen's injury.

After the injury, the Cavs dropped from No. 6 in the Eastern Conference to No. 8. They lost their first play-in game against Brooklyn, which Allen also missed. Although he returned for Cleveland's next play-in game against the Atlanta Hawks, he was hampered by the injury and the Cavs lost again. A once-promising season ended in disappointment for one of the NBA's youngest teams.

This season, the top of the Eastern Conference is stacked with three of the most experienced teams in the NBA. The Milwaukee Bucks won a title in 2021. The Boston Celtics reached the Finals last season. The Philadelphia 76ers have been a perennial contender with Joel Embiid, and his co-star, James Harden, has several playoff runs of his own. In fourth place are the Cavs, trying to crash the party among the East's contenders with what remains one of the youngest teams in the playoff field. Among the top six teams in each conference, the Cavs are the third-youngest team when weighted by playing time, behind the Memphis Grizzlies and New York Knicks.

Evan Mobley, the Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2021, and Darius Garland, an All-Star in 2021, have never played in the playoffs. Allen and Caris LeVert were a part of a pair of first-round exits in back-to-back seasons with the Nets in 2019 and 2020, winning just one game in the two series combined.

Still, despite their inexperience and the collapse in 2022, the Cavaliers saw enough in their young core to go out and add Mitchell in one of the biggest trades of the offseason, hoping he could help close the gap for a young team learning how to win.

So far it has worked. Mitchell is averaging career highs in points (27.4) and shooting (47.7%), and the Cavaliers have the best overall net rating (plus-5.8) in the NBA.

"Obviously, they were good last year, picking up Donovan Mitchell and then [Ricky] Rubio coming back and healthy also is a big part of it," Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. "They can be a factor. They're balanced. They have breakdown guys, Garland is hard to guard, and they have the experience of what they did last year."

An 8-1 start to this season and the potential to have home-court advantage in the first round (in what could be a matchup against the Knicks, the team favored to acquire Mitchell before Cleveland jumped in) has raised expectations for Cleveland.

"You get Donovan for the playoffs," a rival Eastern Conference scout said. "We'll see if he's that guy or not."

Mitchell played in 39 playoff games across five seasons with the Utah Jazz, advancing beyond the first round in both 2018 and 2021. His 28.3 postseason points per game is the seventh highest in NBA history (coincidentally, one spot behind James), and he's one of seven players to record multiple 50-point playoff games.

"It's like when you're growing up and you're at the school yard and you're playing basketball and there's bullies on the court. And you know you've got your big brother with you," Bickerstaff said earlier this season about the addition of Donovan. "You know he's got your back and he's there to support you. That gives you confidence to play better. That's what Donovan provides our group, is a guy who's gotten it done at the highest levels."

WHILE MITCHELL PROVIDES an added scoring punch, the Cavaliers are still built around their league-leading defense.

"Not many teams play big like they do," Clifford said.

Gone is the three-big lineup that featured Allen, Mobley and 7-footer Lauri Markkanen, who was traded to Utah in the Mitchell deal, but Allen and Mobley still represent one of the bigger frontcourt duos in the league.

Cleveland ranks first in the NBA in defensive efficiency, giving up 110.3 points per 100 possessions, and is 38-7 this season when holding opponents under 110 points. Over the past 10 seasons, every team to lead the league in defensive efficiency in the regular season has won at least one playoff series except the 2020-21 Lakers.

Still, questions remain about the team's offense, particularly late in games, even with Mitchell and Garland running the show. Cleveland continues to struggle in clutch time (defined by the NBA as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime when the score is within five points), ranking 23rd in offensive efficiency and 24th in effective field goal percentage during that span. Mitchell is seventh in the league in total clutch points, but he has shot under 40% from the field and the Cavs are 20-20 in clutch games this season.

"Our biggest thing last year was just the last five, six minutes of games just down the stretch, taking care of the ball, getting a quality shot," Garland said. "That's where Don comes in ... and that's what we're still learning.

"That's been our whole thing, really, since after the All-Star break. Focus on trying to hit quality shots in tough situations. Especially coming down the stretch."

They did that in their first game without Allen, getting clutch-time baskets from Mitchell and Mobley to hold off the Hornets and pick up a 114-108 win. They won three of their four games without Allen to all but clinch a top-six playoff spot (ESPN Analytics gives Cleveland a 99.9% chance to make the playoffs).

After the win over the Hornets, Mitchell, Garland and Rubio were gathered in the locker room, talking over their go-to actions for their clutch-time offense. Mitchell has tried to get the team to focus on each game as a dress rehearsal for the playoffs -- an experience they're well aware they missed out on a year ago.

"We try to give them as much real-time experience and things that they can see," Bickerstaff said. "You go back to all those teams [with playoff experience] and you watch their progressions, the things that they've been through, the ups and the downs, the things they've had to learn, so you give them that information and show it to them.

"Reality is, a lot of those lessons that we learn are from failures and tough experiences. So we've got to go through it and we've got to see how quickly we can learn from our mistakes. And that's as far as we'll go."