Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) shoots against Houston Rockets guard Kevin Porter Jr. (3) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, March 26, 2023, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
CLEVELAND — For the first time since LeBron James left them a second time, the Cavaliers are a playoff team again.
Jarrett Allen scored 24 points and had 14 rebounds, Donovan Mitchell added 22 points and the Cavs clinched a postseason spot for the first time since 2018, beating the Houston Rockets 108-91 on Sunday night.
After James left five years ago, the Cavs went through a massive rebuild while enduring coaching changes, a pair of 19-win seasons and just missing the postseason last year before finally getting back.
“It was a winding road to get here,” said Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff.
Along with ending the five-year drought, Cleveland has also returned to the playoffs without James on its roster for the first time since 1998.
“That’s crazy that that’s the stat or whatever,” said center Evan Mobley, who was born in 2001. “I’m just here trying to win the most I can, and I guess that’s a big deal for a lot of people.”
The Cavs, who made it to four straight Finals with James from 2015-18, are closing in on locking up the No. 4 spot — and home-court advantage in the first round — in the Eastern Conference. They’ve won 9 of 11.
Mobley added 19 points and Darius Garland 17 for Cleveland, which after making the play-in tournament last season, signaled it was ready to compete for a championship when it traded for Mitchell in September.
Following the game, the All-Star guard Mitchell told his teammates to celebrate but not to be satisfied.
“I told the guys in there, this is what you should just come to expect,” said Mitchell, who has qualified for the playoffs in each of his six NBA seasons. “You made your first one. Appreciate and enjoy it. Celebrate it for the city, for the organization, for you individual guys who have made it.
“We should come to a point now where that’s expected of us making the playoffs and continuously being here and continuously pushing forward. ”
Jalen Green scored 30 to pace the Rockets, who have lost five straight.
Houston trailed by 20 in the third quarter but rallied and closed within five early in the fourth when Allen single-handedly put the Cavs back in control.
First, Cleveland’s center hustled back on defense and blocked an attempted dunk by Tari Eason. Allen then made four free throws before his dunk pushed the Cavs’ lead to 11. Caris LeVert knocked down a 3-pointer and made a steal and dunk to give Cleveland a 102-86 lead.
The 21-year-old Mobley, who seems to improve every game, had a dominant sequence in the first half.
Mobley snatched a pair of offensive rebounds to prolong Cleveland’s possession before grabbing a third in the air and dunking over two Rockets defenders to put the Cavs ahead by 11.
Mitchell made back-to-back 3-pointers and scored eight points in the final 1:48 to help the Cavs open a 60-43 halftime lead.
Rockets forward Kevin Porter Jr. returned to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse for the first time since being traded by Cleveland in 2021.
Porter spent a tumultuous 1 1/2 years with the Cavs, a stay that included an arrest for weapons possession and an argument with GM Koby Altman.
“I’m happy for Kevin after everything he’s been through — and it’s a lot — since the day he left here,” Houston coach Stephen Silas said. “He has matured and grown. I’m proud of him for that.”
Rockets: With one of the league’s youngest rosters, Houston is a work in progress. Silas sees the Cavs as a model for his squad. “That’s where we want to be, playing for the chance to make the playoffs or seeding late in the season,” he said. “They were young and inexperienced and went through their lumps. Then they got the vets in to take the next step forward.” … Houston has lost 18 of its last 20 road games.
Cavaliers: Mitchell is 13 shy of 10,000 career points. … F Isaac Okoro did not play in the second half due to left knee soreness. … Improved to 30-8 at home. … Bickerstaff smiled when asked what he was doing in 1998, when the Cavs last made the postseason without James on their roster. “I mean, I was having a hell of a time in college,” said Bickerstaff, who was a sophomore at Oregon State.
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