CLEVELAND, Ohio — It was a bittersweet night for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Fueled by a scorching start on offense and some clutch shots late from their All-Star, the Cavaliers topped the rebuilding Orlando Magic, 107-101, at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday. The win snaps Cleveland’s untimely three-game losing streak and helps revive their playoff hopes.
But it wasn’t all good news.
Phenom Evan Mobley, the Rookie of the Year frontrunner, exited the game midway through the second quarter with a sprained left ankle. Mobley did not return, officially ruled out for the remainder of the game before the third quarter started.
There is no word yet on the severity of the ankle injury, which occurred as Mobley landed awkwardly on the foot of fellow rookie Franz Wagner while trying to contest a driving layup. After lying on the court for a bit during the stoppage and having a concerned Wagner check on him, Mobley was eventually helped up and limped back to the locker room.
The youngster finished with six points and three rebounds in 13 minutes.
“With Evan, it’s sometimes hard to tell because he’s so quiet, but I think he rolled it pretty good,” teammate Love said. “Just takes the air out of the building and takes the air out of the team. Definitely has gutted us to lose Evan, whether it be for a game, two games, three games, whatever it may be. We just need to keep fighting and hope he recovers quickly and can be back out there with us because he means so much to the team.”
At the time of Mobley’s injury, the Cavs were leading the Magic, 47-35. Orlando went on a 14-4 run immediately after Mobley left the game. The Magic outscored Cleveland, 18-13, in the final 5:11 of the second quarter. Despite Orlando’s late-quarter surge, the Cavs scored 60 points in the first half, took a lead into the break and hung on late for a much-needed triumph.
“They have continued to stick together, fight for one another,” Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff said following the game. “The injuries take a toll on you mentally and can be a distraction and through that distraction we complicated the game to a point where we didn’t have to. I thought if we were continuing to do the simple things over and over again, we were getting positive results. We figured out a way.”
During a team meeting Sunday afternoon, Bickerstaff spoke to the group about playing with more freedom and exuberance. Sensing a tight team, one putting too much pressure on itself during this late-season playoff race, Bickerstaff wanted his players to enter Monday night with a clear mind and fresh outlook.
The meeting worked. The Cavs led by 20 points in the first half, looking more like one of their early-season showings. The downturn didn’t start until Mobley hobbled off.
First-time All-Star Darius Garland scored a game-high 25 points on 7-of-17 from the field, 5-of-10 from 3-point range and 6-of-6 from the free-throw line to go with 12 assists and three steals. It’s his 26th double-double this season and 10th in March. Garland poured in seven of those points in the fourth quarter, including back-to-back buckets that gave the Cavs an eight-point cushion with 2:25 remaining.
“Darius is a closer and he has the ability to make all the shots, whether it’s at the rim, the midrange, floaters, off the bounce, catch-and-shoots,” Bickerstaff said of Garland. “You look at teams that win, and most of these games come down to the fourth quarter, they have a closer and Darius is at that level and it’s an elite level.”
Lauri Markkanen, who shook off a second-half knee injury scare, added 20 points. Love, starting the second half in Mobley’s spot, chipped in with 19 points on 7-of-15 from the field and 4-of-12 beyond the arc.
“It’s an emotional boost for our guys,” Bickerstaff said when asked about Love’s impact. “You can see the way our guys feel about Kevin and how much they support him and how much they just want to see him be successful. Going all the way back to the beginning of the year, they understood the sacrifice he made by moving to the bench and accepting that role to help the team. They couldn’t be happier for him when he gets it rolling and then the crowd gets behind him and gives us an even bigger boost.”
Orlando used a balanced scoring effort to stay close throughout — a game that featured 14 lead changes and eight ties. The Magic had seven players reach double figures, led by Wendell Carter Jr.’s 15 points.
The Cavs started the night without four players — Collin Sexton (season-ending knee surgery), Dean Wade (season-ending knee surgery), Rajon Rondo (sprained ankle) and Jarrett Allen (fractured left middle finger). Wade, who had been dealing with knee soreness for a few weeks, underwent surgery on his partially torn meniscus early Monday morning. There have been plenty of other absences throughout the season.
Mobley became the latest addition to that never-ending injury list. It could be a crushing blow to the team’s playoff chances if Mobley is out an extended stretch.
“I don’t know if there’s been another team that’s gone through what we’ve gone through — Caris (LeVert) being out and Lauri being out and DG being out, whoever it may be,” Love said. “We’ve had guys step up and play well but we’re the type of team that our strength of the team is the team. When we’re whole we’re just much better.”
Monday was a portrait of the season. There was fun, exciting basketball mixed with some ugliness and stingy defense. It led to a victory. But it wasn’t easy and it happened under a dark cloud of injury uncertainty.
Even on a night the Cavs won their 42nd game, solidifying a winning record for the first time since 1998 without LeBron James, they couldn’t fully enjoy it.
Death, taxes and Cavs injuries. The only certainties.
The Cavs will wrap up their homestand with a matchup against the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday night. Tipoff is set for 7 pm
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