Sport: Cavaliers’ Lamar Stevens holds Donovan Mitchell accountable on defense, shows why he’s in starting lineup

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CLEVELAND, Ohio — After giving up back-to-back buckets to Atlanta Hawks All-Star guard Dejounte Murray and rookie first-rounder AJ Griffin, Cleveland Cavaliers shooting guard Donovan Mitchell returned to the bench and heard an intense, deep voice that reminded him of old college coach Rick Pitino.

Cavaliers forward Cedi Osman (16) hits a three-point shot over Hawks guard Trae Young (11) to put the Cavs up 110-99 with 2:04 to go in the game during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com © David Petkiewicz/cleveland.com/TNS Cavaliers forward Cedi Osman (16) hits a three-point shot over Hawks guard Trae Young (11) to put the Cavs up 110-99 with 2:04 to go in the game during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

It was Lamar Stevens.

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“He came to the huddle and said I was getting my ass busted,” Mitchell recalled with a chuckle following the Cavs’ 114-102 win over the Hawks Monday night that extended their winning streak to three games. “They hit two shots on me, and he was like, ‘What are you gonna do? Are you gonna guard or gonna let them bust your ass?’ I don’t think anybody scored on me after that. You need a guy like that. I respect and appreciate that. It wasn’t just me. He’s told others too. When you have a guy that’s vocal about that and not afraid to speak to everybody on the team the same way, it kinda lifts you up and gets your energy up.

Hawks forward AJ Griffin (14) forces his way to the hoop against Cavaliers forward Cedi Osman (16) during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com © David Petkiewicz/cleveland.com/TNS Hawks forward AJ Griffin (14) forces his way to the hoop against Cavaliers forward Cedi Osman (16) during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

“That’s something I haven’t heard since Rick Pitino started screaming at me. That’s what you’re going to need when you want to get to the playoffs, get to the Finals. He’s one of the best voices on the team in that regard for sure.”

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That moment reiterates what makes the Cavs so special. Leadership and accountability. Communication and connectivity. Tough love. Welcomed criticism.

Stevens began his career as an undrafted free agent out of Penn State, settling for a two-way contract despite being the program’s second all-time leading scorer — although he would be atop the list if not for an untimely COVID shutdown. He worked tirelessly behind the scenes — early mornings and late nights, through the ups and downs — just to prove he was worthy of a non-guaranteed contract and a spot in the rotation.

Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) steals the ball from Hawks forward AJ Griffin (14) during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com © David Petkiewicz/cleveland.com/TNS Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) steals the ball from Hawks forward AJ Griffin (14) during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

And there he was Monday night, getting into a three-time All-Star, one of the league’s premier shooting guards and a team leader — a moment that also helps highlight why Stevens is such a good fit in the new-look starting lineup.

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“He brings a voice that’s definitely needed,” Mitchell said. “Attitude. Positivity. Accountability as well. So, it’s not always just coming from J.B. (Bickerstaff).”

“He brings that dog mentality,” Darius Garland added. “He brings that physicality, as you saw tonight. He brings that defensive mind that we really need and he’s gonna play hard for 48 minutes. That’s who we need with our group.”

Following Wednesday’s loss in Milwaukee, which led to a lengthy heart-to-heart in the visitor’s locker room, Bickerstaff hinted at lineup changes. He promised to help the team recapture its lost defensive identity.

Cavaliers center Robin Lopez (33) talks with Cavaliers forward Isaac Okoro (35) after Okoro was called for his fourth personal foul during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com © David Petkiewicz/cleveland.com/TNS Cavaliers center Robin Lopez (33) talks with Cavaliers forward Isaac Okoro (35) after Okoro was called for his fourth personal foul during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

Stevens — who had spent most of the first month plastered to the bench, collecting a plethora of DNPs — got the start that night, as Bickerstaff wanted that rugged defense-first mentality in a matchup against perennial MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo. Even though that was seen as a temporary gig, born out of necessity due to Jarrett Allen’s absence, Stevens was one of the bright spots in a 15-point loss. His production and competitiveness had Bickerstaff rethinking the starting lineup on the flight home.

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  Florida man who killed couple and tried to eat a victim's face declared insane, not guilty Austin Harrouff will be involuntarily placed in a secured mental health facility after being acquitted of two Florida murders by reason of insanity.Harrouff, 25, fatally stabbed John Stevens III, 59, and Michelle Mishcon, 53, in a vicious and random attack that included injuring their neighbor Jeffrey Fisher, who tried to help the couple.

Hawks forward John Collins (20) drives to the hoop agains Cavaliers guard Darius Garland (10) during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com © David Petkiewicz/cleveland.com/TNS Hawks forward John Collins (20) drives to the hoop agains Cavaliers guard Darius Garland (10) during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

The Core 4 — Garland, Mitchell, Allen and Evan Mobley — wasn’t changing. Nonetheless it had become abundantly clear that score-first Caris LeVert wasn’t the best complementary fifth piece, much more comfortable coming off the bench in his natural shooting guard spot, away from two ball-dominant guards.

Even though Stevens hadn’t played a single minute alongside the other four, Bickerstaff was willing to take a chance. He believed Stevens would be a logical fit.

Defense. Grit. Toughness. Physicality. Switchability. Vociferousness. Energy. More size flanking an undersized, non-traditional backcourt that’s geared toward the offensive end.

“Just threw s--- on the wall,” Bickerstaff quipped facetiously when asked about the shakeup recently. “Obviously, Dean (Wade) comes back there are different conversations that we’ll have until we find that right exact piece.”

Hawks guard Trae Young (11) drives past Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen (31) during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com © David Petkiewicz/cleveland.com/TNS Hawks guard Trae Young (11) drives past Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen (31) during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

The Cavs are 3-0 since making the switch — and boast the league’s best defensive rating over that stretch. Despite a min-boggling late-game collapse that led to two overtimes, the Cavs held Charlotte to 40% from the field and 31.8% from 3-point range in Friday’s slump-busting victory. They limited the Heat to a season-low 87 points on Sunday. The Hawks finished with a 100.5 offensive rating one night later — well below the 110.8 rating they enjoy for the season.

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Stevens is at the center of the turnaround.

“When they inserted me into the starting lineup, that’s what they expected of me first. More than anything, it’s to be that defensive leader and take on those challenges. I take pride in being that versatile defender, being able to guard anybody at any position. Because I think I can,” Stevens said. “I’ve embraced it. I just hold myself to that standard first. Every morning I wake up and think about the game and I’m studying film and focusing on my defense, how I can impact the defense first. I feel like my offense will come at some point.”

On Monday, Stevens hounded Murray — Atlanta’s prized offseason pickup who has formed a lethal backcourt duo with slithery Trae Young — and held him to 11 points on 4 of 17 from the field.

Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen (31) slams the ball for two points and a handful of Hawks players look on during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com © David Petkiewicz/cleveland.com/TNS Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen (31) slams the ball for two points and a handful of Hawks players look on during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

It’s Murray’s second-lowest scoring output this season. It’s by far his worst shooting night.

“Give Lamar a ton of credit,” Bickerstaff said. “I think going into it with a game plan of trying to put as much size on him as you possibly can troubled him a little bit. Lamar has a really good ability to guard isolations, keep guys in front of him, use his chest and defend without fouling while not giving guys angles. When you’ve got a bigger body on him to start, they’re playing pick and roll and now you got two seven footers (Mobley and Allen) in the paint, it makes it extremely difficult to score.”

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That suffocating defense against Murray earned Stevens the ever-popular Junkyard Dog chain, which he proudly sported in the middle of the locker room as the cameras gathered in front of him.

“It’s a blessing,” Stevens said. “I don’t take any of it for granted. A lot of hard work. A lot of frustrated nights at times. But just staying with it and trusting my vision and my plan. It’s definitely a moment of gratitude to be where I am.”

Cavaliers guard Darius Garland (10) barely misses NBA umpire Matt Myers as he is forced out of bounds by Hawks forward Jalen Johnson (1) during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com © David Petkiewicz/cleveland.com/TNS Cavaliers guard Darius Garland (10) barely misses NBA umpire Matt Myers as he is forced out of bounds by Hawks forward Jalen Johnson (1) during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

Stevens isn’t the sole reason for Cleveland’s defensive resurgence. Getting back Allen — a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and interior anchor — has certainly helped. Miami not having its two leading scorers — Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro — boosts those metrics.

The Cavs were also forced to take the mirror test while having numerous unfiltered, honest chats on the heels of a discouraging five-game slide.

“I think we really learned from that losing streak,” Stevens admitted. “We were able to bounce back, go back to the drawing board and just home in on our habits. We’ve been doing a good job of holding everybody accountable to living up to their standards on the defensive side. Any great team, you have to communicate. Any great defender is vocal. Just for us to all be on the same page, it’s required for all of us to be vocal and know where the next man is. It’s just making that decision of how good we really want to be. Sometimes you have to get uncomfortable to do big things.”

Prior to Sunday’s game, a little less than an hour before tipoff against Miami, Bickerstaff displayed something called the team’s identity edit inside the locker room.

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Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff talks to NBA umpire Matt Myers (43) after a foul call during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com © David Petkiewicz/cleveland.com/TNS Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff talks to NBA umpire Matt Myers (43) after a foul call during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

It’s a glut of video clips spliced together that exemplify the core values — details, toughness, together, compete, 1 More.

Bickerstaff doesn’t do it before every game. The usual routine is aimed at the night’s plan — matchups, tendencies and points of emphasis based on the opponent. But he felt the guys needed a reminder of who they are, what they do, how they play and who they can become.

That moment resonated.

“When you lose five in a row, whatever it was, it doesn’t feel great,” Mitchell said. “We started the year off and everything felt easy, felt smooth. That’s not gonna be all 82 games. It’s gonna moments where things start to go differently, and then how do you respond? I think the past three nights we’ve showed grit and we’ve showed determination in getting back to ourselves. We can’t lose it, and that’s the biggest thing.”

Hawks guard Trae Young (11) passes the ball as Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley (4) and Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen (31) defend during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com © David Petkiewicz/cleveland.com/TNS Hawks guard Trae Young (11) passes the ball as Cavaliers forward Evan Mobley (4) and Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen (31) defend during second half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. The Cavs won 114-102. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

Stevens will make sure they don’t. Even though he came to the NBA with a reputation as a natural-born scorer, and those instincts still exist, allowing him to at least be an offensive threat, he shifted his mentality upon going undrafted.

“I just knew I had to find a way,” Stevens said. “Coming in undrafted, there are not many guys that will be asked to come in and score a lot of points. But even at Penn State, even though I wasn’t really that good of a defender, when there were late-game times, coach knew he could call on me to guard anybody. My will to just get a stop, I took pride in that. I knew I had the ability. I just wasn’t asked to do that in college. I got here, had to adjust and figure out where I could fit with this team.”

He has.

Stevens is the guy Bickerstaff turned to in the darkest moment of the season — a time when the defense was spiraling. He is the guy that was shouting in Mitchell’s ear Monday night, demanding better from the superstar on defense. And, for now, he has become the snug-fitting final piece of a glitzy starting lineup.

Cavaliers guard Darius Garland (10) puts up a shot during first half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com © David Petkiewicz/cleveland.com/TNS Cavaliers guard Darius Garland (10) puts up a shot during first half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

“He’s Mr. Everything,” Mitchell said of Stevens. “He’s guarding. He’s running the floor. He’s making the extra effort. He’s holding us all accountable.”

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Cavaliers guard Darius Garland (10) is fouled by Hawks forward AJ Griffin (14) as he drives to the hoop during first half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com © David Petkiewicz/cleveland.com/TNS Cavaliers guard Darius Garland (10) is fouled by Hawks forward AJ Griffin (14) as he drives to the hoop during first half action in the game between the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Monday, November 21, 2022. David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

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Takeaways from the Cleveland Cavaliers’ fourth quarter collapse against the Los Angeles Clippers .
Scoring one field goal in the final five minutes usually isn’t going to get the job done.The opening night loss to the Toronto Raptors felt eerily similar to this even though this was a much bigger blown lead. In both instances, versatile defensive teams with wings were able to force the ball out of Donovan Mitchell’s hands and stagger the halfcourt offense leading to turnovers and fast break baskets. The same story played out on Monday night as the Cavs were held to just one field goal in the final five minutes of play.

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