CLEVELAND — As Cleveland Cavaliers star guard Donovan Mitchell defended Indiana Pacers rookie Bennedict Mathurin on the perimeter in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter Friday night, Mitchell was called for a foul. The whistles blew, but Mathurin and Mitchell continued to hold onto the ball, neither letting go. They stood at the top of the key, arms locked around the ball.
They each held on firmly as teammates from both the Cavaliers and Pacers surrounded them, and two of the referees approached to break up the standoff. Eventually, Mathurin let go, and Mitchell walked away with the ball in his hand, raising it above his head. Those in attendance at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse applauded and cheered.
After a sleepy and lethargic start to the game, the Cavs found themselves down to the Pacers 98-86 with 10:20 left in the fourth quarter. Mitchell could feel that. So he found a way to provide his teammates with some juice.
It was just the type of spark Cleveland needed.
“It’s just about toughness,” Mitchell said. “I think, for me, leadership comes in different forms, and that’s one of them. I think for me, just trying to set that tone that we’re just not gonna back down, and that’s really all that was.”
Spida and the @cavs are looking for a spark. ?#LetEmKnow pic.twitter.com/WHIVcJPmgS
— Bally Sports Cleveland (@BallySportsCLE) December 17, 2022
It had the desired effect. The Cavs outscored the Pacers 32-14 following the tie-up and 35-18 in the fourth quarter. Mitchell put up 18 points and scored 16 of those following that moment, carrying the Cavs to a 118-112 comeback win. Darius Garland focused on trying to give Mitchell the ball in spots so he could be aggressive in those moments. Mitchell finished the night with 41 points — his third 40-plus point game this season. Mitchell’s fourth-quarter play also earned him the Junkyard Dog Chain for Friday night.
Mitchell was willing to get a technical foul for the play. He’s been in a couple of those situations before, once with Patrick Beverley in June 2021 and another with P.J. Tucker in 2018. He said he lost the one to Tucker. On Friday night, he added another victory to that tally, while also not earning a tech.
“It added a lot,” Garland said of the tie-up. “That’s just our fight. I knew Don was not going to let that ball go. When we saw that, we were like, ‘OK, gotta turn up the physicality and turn up the aggressiveness.’ That’s what we did.”
In the moment, it also gave the Cavs a bit of a competitive edge. Coach J.B. Bickerstaff said there was a lot of chirping, so they paid attention. They wanted to protect their home court, where the Cavs have a 13-2 record. Mitchell’s efforts re-energized Cleveland to defend in the necessary manner.
“You don’t poke the bear, and they poked him, and he went on and did what he did,” Bickerstaff said. “But it got everybody going, that’s the thing. That’s what leadership is. The ability to impact others as well.”
Yet, it wasn’t just Mitchell’s scoring that led the Cavs to a win. After getting scored on throughout the first half, Mitchell made a mental note that he had to take over on the offensive end. But first, he had to lock in defensively and get stops.
After Myles Turner got a pocket pass for a layup on Mitchell’s screen because he wasn’t into the ball, it lit something in Mitchell. He didn’t want to let his teammates down. He tried to bring that energy throughout the second half, and it came to fruition in the fourth quarter. Mitchell was focused on holding himself to the Cavs’ defensive standard.
“A lot of the stuff before the fourth quarter was just me getting angry because I was getting scored on, to be honest,” Mitchell said. “Defensively, I’m trying to get better every game. And I fell back into some old habits, kind of standing up. (Aaron) Nesmith gets a corner 3, like being ready, being in position, like those are the little things; that way, you’re not playing catch-up. When guys shoot too well, like I can’t give guys, especially in the fourth quarter, like you can’t give open shots like that. So that was really what that was.”
In the first third of the season, the Cavs have seen what Mitchell can do on a nightly basis. Mitchell is averaging 29.7 points per game, shooting 50.6 percent from the field and 43.6 percent from 3.
Caris LeVert didn’t even realize Mitchell had 41 points Friday night until they were back in the locker room following the win. LeVert said Mitchell has a way of doing so within the flow of the game and that his scoring isn’t forced. They aren’t surprised when Mitchell can take over games like he demonstrated Friday night. Yet, they do see him becoming more comfortable with each game.
Mitchell has helped carry Cleveland to multiple wins with his scoring efforts. He came to a new team following the blockbuster trade in September and found a way to fit into the system seamlessly and with his teammates quickly. Mitchell has established himself as one of the leaders of this young group with playoff aspirations. He understands what his team needs at a particular moment, and he’s able to provide it. And Mitchell’s arrival pushed the Cavs into the conversation for eventual contention.
The M-V-P chants rang through Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse once again Friday night as Mitchell stood at the free-throw line in the fourth quarter. There isn’t any doubt from those in the organization, or the fan base, that Mitchell should be in the conversation for MVP. His presence in Cleveland is hard to capture in a few words.
“He means a lot to this team,” Garland said. “He is one of the leaders, one of the heads of the snakes of this team. He has to bring that energy every night. He has to bring that competitive spirit for us every night on both sides of the ball. He’s a huge scorer. He’s a true competitor. That’s what everybody on this team does. We compete at a high level every night. He just adds to it and fits really well with us.”
(Photo of Buddy Hield, Donovan Mitchell and Myles Turner: Ken Blaze / USA Today)