CLEVELAND — As Cleveland Cavaliers head coach JB Bickerstaff pulled the Junkyard Dog Chain out of its case, he turned and began saying, “We’ve got to give those 44 minutes, 37 points if we come back-to-back,” but this Clapping in the Cavs locker room ensued. Bickerstaff went to Donovan Mitchell’s locker and put the Junkyard dog chain around his neck.
Mitchell went to his post-game press conference and put the Junkyard Dog Chain around his neck. His face lit up as he started talking about earning the award.
“It meant a lot,” Mitchell said of earning the chain. “The guys in the dressing room, last time I saw RoLo, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty awesome.’ For me just to feel part of the group. They accepted me from day one. Just going out and finding my way again and again, whether offensively or defensively. And then get that, ‘It’s great.’
Donovan Mitchell on receiving the Junkyard Dog necklace after his great performance in today’s OT win.#KiaTipOff22 pic.twitter.com/gMgGurOoqf
– NBA (@NBA) October 24, 2022
In his first three games in Cleveland, Mitchell put on a show from both ends of the floor. He has shown how he can facilitate and create shots on offense. Through training camp, preseason and the first three games of the season, Bickerstaff has discovered how Mitchell can be a floor general. He watches Mitchell talking to his teammates and tries to put them in the right spots. Bickerstaff notices Mitchell also reading defenses and giving guys on the floor suggestions on what to do.
Defensively, he denies shots, creates deflections, makes steals, and snags rebounds. He stays in front of his man and puts defensive pressure on.
In front of a rowdy Cleveland crowd, Mitchell made his home debut at the Cavs’ home game Sunday night, and it was a performance filled with exciting moments and others that raised eyebrows. Mitchell displayed his offensive presence as a goalscorer, from running dunks to pull-up shots to a buzzer-beater 3 late in the third quarter. He finished the tournament with 37 points, four assists, five rebounds, three steals and six turnovers, and led the Cavs to a 117-107 overtime win over the Washington Wizards.
“When we came out, we ran out … at first it felt like a playoff game,” Mitchell said. “That was crazy. Then we had the intro; that was crazy. There were only segments during the game where I caught myself smiling a few times. I try to lock myself in, but I just look around and I’m like, ‘Holy shit.’ The crowd is electric. I have heard of that. I’ve played here, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it like that. Actually, I came to a final when I was 16, and that’s how I heard it. But to be on that side and hear the crowd go nuts is amazing. It’s incredible to be a part of. Like I said, at least 41 of those and it’s up from there once you make the playoffs and I’m excited.
In the early days of the season, Mitchell has shown consistency in his game, continually proving he’s exactly the guy the Cavs traded in for just a few short weeks ago.
Mitchell now holds a franchise record three straight games with more than 30 points early in the season. He also became the first Cavs player to open a consecutive-game season with more than 30 points. His 100 total points in the first three games is the most by any Cavs player in the first three games of a season. Austin Carr had previously held that title in 1974-75 with 90 points.
He’s also breaking records outside of the Cavs’ franchise. According to Elias Sports, Mitchell is only the third player in NBA history to score 30 plis points in each of his first three games with a franchise. Mitchell sits behind Wilt Chamberlain with Philadelphia – eight straight games in 1959-60 – and Glenn Robinson with Atlanta – three straight games in 2002-03.
“Just a determination to help the team win,” Bickerstaff said. “The ability to choose his seats and take control of the game when he needs it. The lead, you know what I mean, that wants to take his teammates with him, the way he hugs his teammates. It’s a required 37, right? It’s not empty 30s you see of him. We need every one of them.”
But amid his – and Cleveland’s – success, Mitchell felt the need to apologize.
There were premature mistakes that proved costly. Two of Mitchell’s six turnovers came in the last 40 seconds of the fourth quarter, allowing the Wizards to tie the game at 103 and send it into overtime. Mitchell also had a stretch of six missed field goal attempts in the final eight minutes of the game. The turnovers took Bickerstaff a bit by surprise because he knows how confident Mitchell is and how dynamic he is when he has the ball in his hands. Bickerstaff said he and Mitchell needed to have a few more calls to make sure he got the rest he needed in the game and that he let Mitchell run long stretches all Sunday.
Mitchell apologized not only to the fans who were still in the arena after the game, but also to his teammates and in his post-game interview. He admitted these mistakes.
“Personally, I didn’t like the second half of the game overall,” Mitchell said. “The third quarter was OK, but the fourth quarter was an absolute disaster in my eyes. I just have to get better at that. Finally, JB looked at me and just said, “Let’s go,” like overtime. When you have that confidence you go out and forget everything that’s happening and you just go out and play.
“Those last three possessions — the turnover, the turnover and the missed 3 — we should have been home an hour ago,” Mitchell later said. “That’s really where my head is. We’re going to get the win but I promise you that for the next day and a half all I’m going to be thinking about is finding ways to play late and be the best for my team, and I wasn’t. I missed like five, six in a row… and turned the ball over. I knew I wasn’t the best, but my teammates held me down (reassured) and kept building me up.”
The boys realized that Mitchell took responsibility for those mistakes both on the fly and after the game.
“That’s just the way he is,” Jarrett Allen said. “He wants to do everything right as best he can. Even when he’s doing things right, he still feels like he’s doing things wrong. Show humility. He doesn’t want everyone to accept him, but to make sure he’s doing the right thing.”
Mitchell also took the final shot of the game, freeing a 26-foot step back 3 that would have given the Cavs the lead after time was up. But the shot was long and didn’t go in, sending the game into overtime.
Mitchell said that shot is one of his favorites whether he takes it as a 2 or 3. He especially likes the shot going right because Mitchell is a downhill rider so he can create the space he needs. He works the most on the step-back jumper. He felt like it was going in, but was ultimately glad it was going long instead of short.
“If I missed it briefly, I would have been pretty upset because it means I’m tired and I couldn’t get my legs in,” Mitchell said. “I thought it was good, and I got a train that I wanted to catch. Ultimately it didn’t go in, but I’ll take it again if I’m open and keep trusting him.
As Mitchell reached the free-throw line 31.5 seconds into overtime, fans at the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse MVP began chanting. MVP. MVP. He has of course heard these chants and appreciates them, even though he knows he hasn’t earned them yet.
“I really appreciate it, but I have a lot of work to do to get there,” Mitchell said. “But I am very thankful for the love. Like I said, from day one, from the moment I got off the plane, and it hasn’t stopped. And I’m honored and blessed to be in this position. And like I said, I’m just doing my part with the trust of my teammates, my coaches. I just go out there and do what I can and when DG comes back I’ll go ahead and just take it to another level.
Then, as Mitchell was on the court after the game conducting a post-game TV interview, Darius Garland ran over, yelled “YEAH” and hugged Mitchell before leaving the court. Allen appeared behind Mitchell shortly thereafter and threw a water bottle over his head in celebration.
In just three games, Mitchell’s role has changed slightly. While he started alongside Garland in the starting box in the season opener, Garland’s eye injury has kept him out the last two games. The Cavs wanted to stagger Mitchell and Garland to keep one of them grounded at all times, but right now Mitchell needed to lead the Cavs as a point guard, easing and creating the offensive end.
Bickerstaff noted that Mitchell is much more than a goalscorer.
“If you look inside from the outside and throughout his time in Utah, he’s sort of always played with a different lead guard, but he has point guard instincts with the ability to score the ball at an elite level,” Bickerstaff said. “He knows how to play the game. You see little things like the passes he makes to his teammates are right where the passes should be. Very rarely do you see a guy have to stretch his hands out or turn them upside down when Donovan is making these plays. I was impressed with it to be honest. A lot of guys are top scorers, they just are. But Donovan is a playmaker and scoring is just the right play at this point and he’s capable of making those plays.
In a matter of weeks, the Cavs have rallied behind Mitchell. He has been immersed in the culture of Cleveland and has already established himself as a leader.
“He’s just a good guy,” Allen said. “That’s what it boils down to. It’s easy to talk to him; He doesn’t brag about his accomplishments, he’s one of the hardest workers at every single game in the gym. It’s easy to support a guy like that, and it’s easy to follow someone like that.”
(Top Photo: Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports)