Donovan Mitchell healthy, ready to make second playoff run with Cavs a year after painful early exit

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Donovan Mitchell understands what’s at stake — all of it.

In the weeks ahead, his reputation, his stature among the NBA’s stars, maybe even his future with Cleveland, is on the line.

An uneven season filled with twists, turns and injurie s for the Cavs has returned Mitchell to the playoffs, where he will be judged.

There’s weight and pressure. Nothing new.

“Comes with the territory,” Mitchell said.

After being s lowed by a left knee injury since the All-Star break, Mitchell proclaimed himself as “100 percent” and “ready to go” as the Cavs practiced Wednesday in preparation of their first-round matchup against the Orlando Magic.

The best-of-seven series opens Saturday at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Game 2 is April 22.

Mitchell has only played in 10 of a possible 26 games since March 1 due to the sore knee, which was treated with a platelet-rich plasma injection followed by extended rest and careful monitoring by the Cavs.

For weeks, Mitchell didn’t look anything like himself. His normal burst was gone and he lacked his usual change of direction, weapons he applies to separate from the league’s top guard defenders.

There was concern he was more seriously injured, but Mitchell, who also played several games wearing a mask to protect his broken nose, found his gear last week with a 33-point night against Indiana.

It was his first 30-plus-point performance since Feb. 27, and it seemed to bring him and the Cavs some comfort.

The added rest this week has helped as well.

“It’s a blessing for sure,” he said. “But mentally I’m ready to play.”

Now just days away, the playoff opener is a game Mitchell and most of his teammates have been waiting to play for a year.

Mitchell’s first postseason trip with Cleveland was a calamity. The New York Knicks, his hometown team and the one with whom he continues to be linked, bullied the Cavs in a five-game beatdown that left marks on Mitchell and the Cavs.

Despite averaging 27.8 points in 44 career playoff games, Mitchell has never gotten past the second round in five appearances with Utah and one with Cleveland. Fair or not, the can’t-win-the-big-one stigma shadows him.

He’s never shied away from the criticism. Mitchell knows there’s only one way to change the narrative — win. He’s Cleveland’s unquestioned leader, the go-to guy, the one asked to carry the load.

Mitchell wouldn’t have it any other way.

“That is just expected of me,” he said. “That’s who I am to myself, who everybody’s expecting me to be. But at the end of the day, I set my own personal goals and this is one of them. It just happens to align with everybody else’s expectations, too.

“I mean, I put that on me, and I’m not worried about that. I prepped for these moments. My teammates believe in me, and I believe in myself. Now I can sit here and say about this is all I want, but I got to go out there and do it.”

The Cavs believe they’re better prepared for these playoffs. While last year’s postseason was painful, the early exit provided valuable learning tools they intend to use this time.

They’ve also been hardened by an assortment of bumps and bruises. In mid-December, injuries to Darius Garland and Evan Mobley — the duo missed six weeks — threatened to derail the Cavs before 2024 started.

However, they persevered and spent much of the season contending for the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference before a late slide dropped them to No. 4.

The playoffs were always a goal. Not the last one.

“Being here is the bare minimum for this group,” Mitchell said. “This is who we are at the lowest. We all expected that. We don’t get guys like Max Strus and Georges Niang to sign in free agency, Tristan Thompson, Marcus Morris, if they don’t believe that we can do something.

“We all believe in ourselves. We always have a chip on our shoulder regardless of whether it’s the No. 1 seed, the No. 10 seed, whatever. This is where we expected to be and now we’ve got to go out there and handle business.”

As the Cavs get ready to face the young-and-dangerous Magic, Mitchell’s next move hangs over Cleveland’s franchise.

He’s eligible to sign a contract extension with the Cavs this summer. To this point, Mitchell has been non-committal while leaving his options open. It doesn’t make sense for him to be pinned down.

For now, the 27-year-old’s sole focus is on what lies ahead in the next series, and hopefully another after that.

“We’re in good shape,” he said. “We’re ready to go.”



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