Donovan Mitchell-led Cavs writing their own story as LeBron James revisits Cleveland

Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell shoots against Lakers center Damian Jones (30) and guard Austin Reaves (15) during the second half Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, in Cleveland.
Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell shoots against Lakers center Damian Jones (30) and guard Austin Reaves (15) during the second half Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND — Years ago, before he reached the NBA, Donovan Mitchell used to watch LeBron James play on TV. He'd yell at the screen when something big would happen, he'd cheer, he'd watch James do things on a basketball court only a few before him ever could.

During the first quarter of Tuesday night's game against James' Los Angeles Lakers, he stood off to the side while the Cavs showed a highlight reel of the Akron-born star from Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, which drew a thunderous ovation after mentioning the Cavs' title.

And later that night, during the fourth quarter, as James watched but couldn't stop, Mitchell took over the game. He sent the crowd into a frenzy. He garnered M-V-P chants at the foul line. He poured in 43 points, with 29 of them coming in a second-half flurry while the Cavs pulled away en route to a 116-102 win.

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It was the type of performance Cavs fans had come to expect from James, who turns 38 later this month, during his two stretches in Cleveland. But this time, it wasn't No. 23 drawing the ovation and strutting around the floor during moments of being unstoppable. It was No. 45.

In that way, it was a celebration of duality Tuesday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. The Cleveland crowd gave James a standing ovation during the first quarter, an acknowledgement of the title he helped to bring to the city, its first in 52 years. But the fourth quarter, and the many roars of the crowd that came with it, belonged to Mitchell, the franchise's new No. 1, the team's next hope to reach the top of the basketball world.

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"It doesn’t matter who it is, you always want to spoil the homecoming," Mitchell said. "That’s just the competitor in you, you always want to do that. But I said it to the guys in the huddle, it’s gonna be a lot going on. There’s gonna be cheers at the free throw for him, there’s gonna be boos for him, there’s gonna be cheers for us, there’s gonna be so much emotion, and at the end of the day, we just gotta play 48 minutes of our basketball."

James said afterward that the tribute video surprised him a little bit.

"A little bit. It’s always love coming back here," James said. "Obviously the memories that I have here will never be forgotten. From the time I was drafted as an 18-year-old kid, to the time I left, and then left. So the reception I got from the fans here, it’s mutual, that’s for sure."

The love that much of Cleveland, Akron and Northeast Ohio still has for James is no secret. There also were some boos, as the energy has reached an electric level every time he has returned to Cleveland wearing another uniform. There was no way Tuesday night would simply be just another game. It's the Lakers, it's James, it's a national audience. Mitchell embraced all of it. He leaned into all of it. And he stole the show.

"I think for myself, just finding ways to take it moment by moment in the game, not making the moment too big, but also embracing what’s around, I’m not the type to be like, 'All right, let’s ignore the fact that he’s back,'" Mitchell said. "You know, I was watching him as a kid. It was pretty dope, I sat there [tonight], watching the crowd giving him a standing ovation, that was cool. That was great to see. At the same token, when you allow yourself to be a part of the moment but understand that you can’t let that take you away from getting the stop, boxing out, getting (a) rebound, being in different situations, that was just my message tonight."

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) shoots between Cleveland Cavaliers guard Caris LeVert (3) and center Jarrett Allen (31) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) shoots between Cleveland Cavaliers guard Caris LeVert (3) and center Jarrett Allen (31) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Cavs want to write their next chapter without LeBron James

Last season, a major message from the Cavs was the interest in "writing our own chapter" without James. It wasn't necessarily meant as a direct shot, but it's understandable that a young Cavs team would aim to make their own mark on the league. James and the Cavs are forever intertwined, and he left a sizable shadow. In that way, it's impossible to not take in Tuesday night's game without considering how the Cavs are wanting to turn the page, and how Mitchell, Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley and Co., led by head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, are helping to write the next chapter.

"It’s only written by success and possibly exceeding or accomplishing the same type of thing he’s been able to accomplish here," Bickerstaff said. "That’s the goal and the objective and the challenge for all of us. It’s difficult to follow in the footsteps of someone who is arguably the greatest at anything. As a player, you see that, you know that, you feel that when you’re walking [in] the community and you see everybody in the jerseys and those types of things. It’s not easy. The only way to do it is, in a team setting, get to where that person has got and accomplish those things."

The impact LeBron James left on Cavs still felt

James set a new standard in Cleveland during his time with the Cavs. He left a foot print on the organization that will never fully be weathered away. He set an impossibly high bar, but one the Cavs have had in their sights since James left for the Lakers, his second exit from Cleveland. But some of his impact stayed. Some of the expectations and standards remained with the organization.

"Yeah I think there's a level of excellence that he brought to the city," Mitchell said. "The way he's revered as an athlete. I think the first initial thought, you think of the Cleveland Cavaliers when you think of Bron. I don't think – and that's no disrespect to the Lakers and the Heat – when you think of Bron, you think of Cleveland. He set that precedent.

"He set a standard. And we just want to honestly go out there and try to win the championship. And like when you have a guy and have a group and have a team that wants to continue to build, it's great when you have that on our team. And you know starts with our owner all the way trickles down, you feel the energy, you feel it."

James brought the Cavs to a level that few organizations really reach. It's something the new versions continue to carry with them.

"Having been a lot of places, everybody uses the term “championship organization.” There’s not that many championship organizations, to be honest with you," Bickerstaff said. "When you have someone who carried a team as far as he did, as consistently as he did, there’s certain standards as an organization you have to live up to. There are certain resources you have to be afforded."

"I think we’re the beneficiaries of that. There’s not a things that we’ve asked for that we’ve all felt that could be a competitive advantage that we’ve been told no. And to me, what’s most impressive, even in the years following where we weren’t as good, that didn’t change. Again, a standard was set and we’ve been fortunate enough to be with an ownership group and a front office that’s been able to hold us to that standard."

As the Cavs built something they knew could be special last season, it was clear some of the pieces for a contender were falling into place. Garland took a major step forward. Mobley was an instant impact player. Allen's presence inside continued to be a factor. The Cavs were one of the surprises of the league, but didn't yet have that clear go-to leader in the fourth quarter. Then the trade for Mitchell was completed. And he has exceeded every expectation, no matter how high the bar was set in the beginning.

But as Bickerstaff has seen, Mitchell hasn't simply come into the locker room and been The Guy. He has seamlessly emerged himself into the Cavs' style of play.

"It's leadership. It's a guy that you can depend on in the thick of it, which isn't always easy and not everybody wants it, but he gives confidence to everybody on the floor because they believe in him and they know that he's capable of it, but he doesn't do it in a way that takes away from other people," Bickerstaff said. "He empowers his teammates around him. … To be honest with you, it's unique in that, in his ability to take and make big shots, but to empower his teammates at the same time."

Mitchell said that was something he learned during his time in Utah. He remarked that it was kind of funny, as he reflected on his career, how he has progressed from the talented rookie who learned how to be a leader to the star veteran now teaching others. And he reflected on his basketball journey that not too long ago included him watching James on TV.

On Tuesday night, he got the better of James. Cavs fans cheered James for the title he brought to Cleveland in the first quarter. In the fourth, those ovations were reserved for Mitchell and the title they hope is still to come.

In one night, Cleveland celebrated its basketball past and the future they come is approaching on the horizon.

"I said it to Jarrett earlier, it’s crazy, I grew up watching him here. The ovation, it really hit for me, like a full circle moment when I watched him get that standing ovation when they played his intro," Mitchell said. "I kind of sat there … and just kind of just watched the reception he got. and that’s incredible. It's well deserved. He's one of the greatest players of all time, brought a championship – the only championship – to this franchise and you always gotta have respect and admiration for that. And hopefully we can do something similar."

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

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Donovan Mitchell leading Cavs into next chapter without LeBron James