Cleveland Cavaliers tired of 'learning experiences' after loss to playoff challenger

Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent (2) plays against Cleveland Cavaliers guard Darius Garland during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent (2) plays against Cleveland Cavaliers guard Darius Garland during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers s know they are preparing for a fight, the likes of which they have not undertaken as a collective group yet, should they make the playoffs and take on the best teams in the East.

Along the way, it has been noted multiple times they know the regular season is a learning process. But a difficult battle is looming, and the Cavs are growing tired of only counter punching, of simply holding their ground. They want to go on the offensive.

The Cavs lost a hard-fought, defense-heavy game 100-97 to the Miami Heat Tuesday night. The loss carried a little extra significance, given that the Cavs entered the night holding the No. 5 seed and the Heat were making up ground to overtake them. Only six teams earn automatic spots into the playoffs and avoid the play-in tournament. Plus, seeding in the playoffs, and the extra home game that comes with it, can be a major factor come May and June.

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The Cavs and Heat battled back and forth, but Miami ultimately came away with the win thanks to a Cleveland scoring drought late in the fourth quarter and a few timely offensive rebounds. As time expired, Donovan Mitchell's 3-point attempt didn't fall.

It was a game that featured a more physical, playoff-like energy. And Cleveland wants to ensure, from this point forward, that they're not waiting for other teams to bring the physicality to them.

"I think we need to learn to throw the first punch in these instances," said Jarrett Allen, who represents half of the Cavs' defensive presence in the paint. "Playoff atmosphere, if you let the other team throw the first punch or be more physical first, then that puts you at a big disadvantage. That's a quarter-to-quarter basis, it's a play-to-play basis, and I think we let that get away from us."

The Cavs (31-22) believe they're in a good spot but know they're also a work in progress. They're 23-21 in their last 44 games. But despite Tuesday's loss, they still have a winning record (6-4) against the other five teams in the top six spots in the Eastern Conference — Boston (2-0), Milwaukee (2-2), Philadelphia (1-0), Brooklyn (0-1) and Miami (1-1).

On one hand, those records are positives considering the Cavs only recently reached the point of being able to field a healthy roster, as injuries have wreaked havoc on coach J.B. Bickerstaff's rotations. On the other hand, the Cavs see room for improvement, and that although their ceiling is high it's also been out of reach.

"Sometimes it's like we took a step back because we talk about closing the games out and then we do it good one game, and then the next game we don't do it so well," Allen said. "I think everybody can speak on that. I'm not calling anybody out because it happens to me, too. I do think we're [going] in the right direction, it's just frustrating when we take a step back sometimes."

The Cavs' nucleus is on the younger side compared to the rest of the contenders in the East. With that youth, and the fact the team has not had much time on the floor together with Mitchell and everyone else healthy, some speed bumps are sure to litter the road ahead. The Cavs know to expect some learning experiences, even if that is quickly becoming a taboo term in Cleveland.

"I don't want to say it's all learning experiences because we wanna be at the top," Allen said. "We can't just keep saying, 'Oh, we're learning, we're learning, we're learning.' It's just, I don't wanna say a letdown on our part, but we just feel like we could've done better. … I feel like this is the key word: learning experience. I'm tired of saying that."

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Although playing some of the top teams in the regular season is one thing, a seven-game series in a playoff atmosphere is a completely different animal. And for the Cavs, it'll be a new — well, to use a different term than the one Allen is tired of saying — opportunity to gain knowledge previously not acquired. Playoff experience is not something the Cavs have in surplus.

Kevin Love (62 games) and Mitchell (39) are the only Cavs on the roster with any extensive playoff experience. Cedi Osman has 14 playoff games under his belt, but all of them came in his rookie season in 2018, and he averaged just 4.4 minutes per game.

No other Cavs player has 12 games of playoff experience. Ricky Rubio (11 games), Jarrett Allen (nine) and Caris LeVert (nine) have limited time. Darius Garland, Evan Mobley, Isaac Okoro, Lamar Stevens and Dean Wade haven't yet made their playoff debuts.

If you're looking for recent playoff experience, it gets worse. Outside of Mitchell, the Cavs have a combined 13 playoff game appearances since the conclusion of the 2018 Finals, when the Warriors swept LeBron James the Cavs four and a half years ago.

The Cavs will be likely be going up against one of any five teams with a considerable amount of playoff experience, making it an even more difficult climb to the top in addition to it being a, uh, moment of education, let's say. But in that way, these difficult tests now could be beneficial down the road.

"I speak to the Utah game a lot because it was loud," Mitchell said. "I don't think any arena is as loud than that, except obviously here, but I’m biased.  But that playoff road atmosphere, that's what that is. A lot of it was at the beginning of the year. We haven't really had those road intensity games that I can remember [off the] top of my head.

"But understanding that, and I tell these guys, look, there's going to be nights, especially when the All-Star break hits, once we get back to it, this seeding [push] is crazy. You could win four in a row and be second. You can lose four in a row be 10. So understanding that every game counts, but also in the same token not putting that pressure on yourself every night, because it can wear on you as the year goes on."

Mitchell isn't exactly thrilled with the L word, either — in this case, "learning."

"I think we're all kind of tired of coming here and saying like, 'We're learning,'" Mitchell said. "You want to learn through success and different ways, and we haven't played well. And that's just the honest truth. And we just got to find a way to do that. And that's on all of us."

And once the playoffs do roll around, the Celtics, or Bucks, or 76ers, or Heat or Nets won't care the Cavs are inexperienced. The Cavs feel they have put their best foot forward. The finished product just hasn't been attained yet, and they know they're on a deadline once the regular season wraps up.

"We are kind of inconsistent, and I don't want that to be the headline. I want it to be known that the sky, it’s not falling," Mitchell said. "We are in good shape, but we have to find that level of consistency to be a great team. We're playing as if we are a young team and haven’t been there, and if we want to get to where we want to get to, ultimately we have to be able to find that level of consistency through adversity, through the days when we’re tired, through playing against teams that have been there.

"Because, ultimately, in the playoffs no one really gives a damn, to be honest with you."

Ryan Lewis can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cavs tired of 'learning experiences' after loss to Miami Heat