NBA

Evan Mobley’s Game 2 Ascension Is What The Cavs Have Always Wanted

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Evan Mobley

Key Highlights

  • In the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ Game 2 victory, Evan Mobley scored a playoff career-high 21 points, while adding 10 rebounds, five assists, two blocks and one steal
  • Cleveland outscored the Boston Celtics, 89-54, during Mobley’s 33 minutes
  • On shots within 6 feet of the hoop, Mobley held Boston to 3-0f-8 shooting when he was the primary defender

Just about two years ago — after a promising step forward in which they jockeyed all season for a playoff berth before bowing out of the Play-In Tournament — the Cleveland Cavaliers elected to mash the accelerator on their rebuild.

Darius Garland, then 22, and Jarrett Allen, then 24, were first-time All-Stars. Garland looked like a dynamic ball-screen maestro whose facilitating and pull-up shooting were a vivacious tandem. Allen looked like the perfect partner to cram home his lobs, capitalize on the short roll, and anchor a top-five defense. But Garland couldn’t carry the creation mantle alone and 25-year-old All-Star Donovan Mitchell was available on the trade market. So, Cleveland parted with a bevy of role players and picks to land the sweet-shooting, hard-charging, laser-passing guard.

For all the faith in Garland and Allen, acquiring Mitchell — which limited future flexibility and pressurized the short term — spoke loudest about the player the Cavaliers believed Evan Mobley would soon blossom into. At that time, Mobley had recently concluded his first season, one where he finished second for Rookie of the Year and instantly asserted himself among the league’s preeminent defenders.

Despite his offensive woes, the strides he showcased across 71 appearances were enough for the front office to believe further growth would propel him to stardom. Sure, the jumper and finishing needed polishing. But once it all materialized, his feel, playmaking and defensive versatility — at that size and age (6 feet, 11 inches, 21 years old) — were a dashing package of skills fit for a star. Stardom seemed like a short walk away more than  any sort of arduous journey.

Two years later, the jumper and finishing still need polishing, albeit less so than in April of 2022. Mobley is a better player today, yet the offensive evolution is surely ongoing rather than fully fledged (or close to it) and has rarely made its way into his 14 playoff ventures.

Floating on his toes, swiveling his hips, rerouting drives, altering finishes and contesting jumpers, he remains a game-wrecking defender. That’s never evaporated amid the rigors of postseason basketball. But Cleveland’s offense has often found itself stuck in the mud, and Mobley’s largely been unable to help tow it out. The pressurized short term has only increased after a five-game, first-round exit in 2023 and a seven-game, first-round victory this season defined by choppy play, blistering peaks, bewildering valleys and crucial absences.

Yet, here the Cavaliers stand — days removed from their first series win since 2018 and first without LeBron James since 1993 — knotted in a 1-1 tie with the Boston Celtics and touting homecourt advantage. Cleveland marched into TD Garden Thursday night and walloped the Celtics, 118-94. Ran them out of the gym. Left no doubt of a total beatdown in Beantown.

With 29 points, eight dimes and seven boards, Mitchell starred to continue his torrid stretch. Caris LeVert shimmied, scurried and bounded his way to 21 points, six rebounds and three dimes. And for a night, Mobley was everything — on both ends — the Cavaliers believe he will become, tallying 21 points, 10 rebounds, five helpers, two rejections and one takeaway.

He punctuated downhill forays off feeds from ball-handlers. He high-pointed rebounds. He confidently buried a triple. He whizzed passes inside as a playmaker. He called his own number, contorting around or over stiffer, slower, smaller defenders for scores. Boston’s boogeyman around the paint, he lurked and lurked and lurked, reminding everyone of his All-Defensive First Team credentials.

It was the type of performance reinforcing why Cleveland invested such substantial draft capital in leapfrogging over the fun-loving, plucky playoff team stage of rebuilding.

By now, the Cavaliers expected this to be closer to his norm than an aberration. Mobley’s development may have stalled a bit, but the magical possibilities persist. He is 22 years old, his prime seasons away when all these flashes ideally coalesce to render his Game 2 performance part of a larger mosaic into his skill-set instead of a hopeful blip.

With Kristaps Porzingis sidelined, Boston’s interior defense is shoddy. Al Horford is ground-bound. Luke Kornet is not an adept rim protector, unsure of how to properly toggle between man and ball, despite his domineering size. Xavier Tillman has the technique and understanding, but lacks the physical tools.

The Cavaliers exploited that in Game 2. They shot 74 percent around the basket (80th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass) and generated 39 percent of their field goals there (82nd percentile). Mobley was 5-of-7 inside the restricted area, converting a handful of unencumbered buckets via table-setting drives.

Most encouragingly, though, was his aggression against mismatches. The Celtics are primarily guarding him with Jayson Tatum and Al Horford. He is longer and taller than Tatum, and quicker and longer than Horford. They also aren’t concerned with his outside shooting. For Cleveland to have any chance in this series, he has to punish those defensive gambits.

He did in Game 2, shooting over the top, finding his spots inside, and applying his flexibility for funky finishes. These are the offensive wrinkles that, if they ever become sustainable, can help elevate this team toward much grander heights. At least for 48 minutes, they shepherded an undermanned Cavaliers group to an emphatic victory.

The lefty post hook, the pull-up jumper as a dribble handoff trigger man, the long ball, the drive into a careening off-hand layup — this might as well be a montage of his offensive ceiling. He exhibited it all in one game.

The previews Mobley provides into his multifaceted scoring are always so enticing because of the defense. Few players across the world are better.

In Game 1, though, his impact felt muted. Cleveland assigned him to Horford, who spaces beyond the arc as part of Boston’s five-out offense. When Kornet was in, he resided around the weakside slot (between the top of the key and wing) to imitate spacing, given he’s hoisted one three all season. That positioning typically relegated Mobley to the perimeter, where he was unable to stamp his imprint as frequently as required.

On Thursday, the Celtics maintained those same spacing principles, but Mobley and the Cavaliers refused to adhere. Just because a team plays five-out does not mean a defense should automatically grant them the benefits. So, Mobley roamed far more. He warped driving lanes and disrupted passing windows. Closeouts behind his rotations were sharper, while his length and mobility still allowed him to recover if necessary.

Boston’s big man rotation without Porzingis does not holster much offensive juice, especially inside. Release valves on drives, whether it be kickouts or laydowns, are scarce. Mobley took advantage, and short-circuited a ton of paint touches. The Celtics missed plenty of good looks from deep, but they also had a slimmer margin for error because fewer clean looks were available than the game prior.

Various Celtics second-guessed on decisions with Mobley in the vicinity because actually testing him didn’t go well either. According to NBA.com, he held Boston to 3-of-8 shooting when he was the primary defender on field goals of 6 feet or fewer.

Rim deterrence usually stems from reputation. Rim protection is about execution. He aces both tests, and it melded Boston’s shiny, free-flowing, dynamic attack into a stagnant, feckless, perplexed sludge. The Celtics scored 54 points during his 33 minutes on the court and 40 points in the 15 minutes he sat (81.8 vs. 142.9 offensive rating).

He also spent more time switched onto the likes of Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Cleveland was burned by guard-guard screening actions and Horford’s pick-and-pops in Game 1. Its primary counters were more selective switching against the former and swapping drop for outright switching against the latter. Mobley kept himself involved and bottled up the prolific wing duo on a few different occasions.

Exceeding expectations early always raises the stakes. Mobley and the Cavaliers being so formidable in 2021-22 altered what their front office thought possible in the interim, and their decision-making reflected that. Their win-now jolt magnifies the painstaking nature of Mobley’s incremental growth by twisting his formative years into an environment eager and ripe for a rapid burgeoning.

He is not yet a star. He will be eventually. Game 2 embodied why that arrival will be so special and warrants the patience it demands. It sent Cleveland back home to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse with a win in hand and cast delightful visions of Mobley’s future for everyone to see.