CLEVELAND — Quin Snyder was meticulous in his preparation for events just like this. Well, maybe not 71 like this. But game-on-the-line, gotta-have-it moments when the shooter at the free-throw line controls the outcome. Donovan Mitchell practiced some variation of it at least once a month while with Snyder in Utah.
Mitchell prefers the high lofted miss off the back of the rim to the line drive off the front. The line drive is too unpredictable. It can carom to places he doesn’t want it to go. Monday, the ball went exactly where Mitchell directed it for the entire 53 minutes, so of course it followed orders during the most important moment of the night.
Mitchell did something Monday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse that has never been done in NBA history: 71 points and 11 assists. No player has ever scored that many and still managed so many assists. Add it together and Mitchell accounted for 99 points in the Cavs’ 145-134 overtime win against the Bulls.
He’s the sixth player to score at least 71 in a game. Neither Michael Jordan nor LeBron James is on that list.
“In my 15 years, that’s the best performance I’ve ever seen,” said Kevin Love, who played alongside LeBron and Kyrie Irving for four years in this building. Neither ever did anything like this. Love watched Irving score 55 here against Portland and 57 in overtime at San Antonio. Mitchell scored 55 after halftime on Monday.
On a night when the Cavs didn’t have Darius Garland and Evan Mobley, and in a game that began with Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff believing the Bulls would try to force the ball out of Mitchell’s hands, Mitchell controlled everything.
“I’ve never been witness to a performance like that live,” Bickerstaff said. “We were treated tonight to one of the greatest performances in the history of the NBA.”
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) January 3, 2023
But 71 isn’t possible without overtime, which isn’t possible without the witchcraft sorcery voodoo magic Mitchell accomplished at the line at the end of regulation. For all the dazzling, dizzying array of shots he made Monday, it was the one he made from under the rim that was the most spectacular to me. He put the ball through the basket 42 times Monday (22 field goals, 20 free throws), but it was the one he missed — intentionally, of course — that made everything else possible.
The Bulls, who once led by 21, wisely fouled Mitchell before he could get a shot up with 4.4 seconds left and the Cavs trailing 130-127. Mitchell made the first free throw before his Utah instincts kicked in and the fire drill began. Everyone on the floor and in the building knew he had to intentionally miss the second shot. Love started to walk toward the basket to line up for the rebound, but Mitchell redirected him to the 3-point line. He wanted Love there as a safety so if Mitchell caught the carom off balance, at least he could kick it back to another shooter at the buzzer.
Mitchell looked at the bench and called for Robin Lopez. So Andre Drummond checked in for Chicago. Lopez is 7 feet tall. Drummond is 6-11. Jarrett Allen is 6-9. Suddenly there was 21 feet of meat positioned under the basket for the rebound, and then “little” 6-5 Zach LaVine. The Bulls didn’t have another big to match the Cavs, which was important. Mitchell ultimately beat all of them to the ball.
Mitchell knew Chicago didn’t really have two bigs to match Lopez and Allen. So he lofted the shot high toward LaVine’s side and in one motion sprinted after it, spun around the Bulls’ Patrick Williams as if he were a parking cone, leaped high into the air, caught the ball and flipped it off the glass before crashing to the floor.
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) January 3, 2023
He practiced it all the time in Utah, first with Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, then with Hassan Whiteside and Gobert. The Cavs worked on it once in Toronto, and when Mitchell kept referencing Toronto in the moment Monday, he thought everyone understood what he meant.
“But they just told me they had no damn idea what the hell I was talking about,” Mitchell said. Didn’t matter. He did it himself.
The fact he managed to accomplish all that and still get the shot off was some sort of sorcery. The fact it went in was magic. For as often as he’s drilled it, it’s the first time Mitchell could recall the play working in a game. Only possible on a night that ends in 71.
This arena will have LeBron, Love and Irving jerseys hanging in the rafters someday. Together they played 1,708 games in a Cavs jersey but never accomplished anything like what Mitchell created in his 34th game as a Cav on Monday. He has fit seamlessly into the lineup, locker room and city since arriving here over the summer. He has closed out plenty of home games to “MVP” chants since the season began. But never like this. This was a delirious sellout crowd realizing it just experienced something few others have witnessed.
This time, Cedi Osman grabbed a microphone after the game and led the crowd in those “MVP” chants. Mitchell’s teammates disappointed him with water bottles at midcourt.
Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, David Robinson, Elgin Baylor and David Thompson. That was the extent of the 71 Club before Mitchell muscled his way into the lane at the end of regulation. Then, ultimately, into the rare air of history.
(Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images)