The Cleveland Cavaliers were in need of a get-right game.
After starting 1-3 due to a myriad of injuries to key players, they have gone win-loss-win-loss over the past seven games. Playing the rebuilding Portland Trail Blazers in the final game of their West Coast road trip, it was important for the Cavs to end on a high note and not stumble against an inferior opponent.
The injury report again didn’t make things easy, with Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro and Ty Jerome all out due to injury. Thankfully the Trail Blazers weren’t exactly healthy themselves, missing Anfernee Simons, Scoot Henderson and Malcolm Brogdon.
The Cavaliers took full advantage, overwhelming Portland’s young rotation and coming away with the 109-95 win. Perhaps fans could have hoped for a more dominant showing from a Cavaliers team expected to be among the top teams in the league (at least during the regular season) but playing on the road at the end of a trip against any opponent is a difficult challenge. A 14-point win seems like a gift that shouldn’t be rejected.
Donovan Mitchell unsurprisingly led the way with 34 points, getting back on track in a major way against a backcourt ill-equipped to slow him down. He went 5-for-8 from 3-point range, shot 65 percent from the field overall, and added six rebounds and four assists to his total.
Evan Mobley was also dominant, outclassing the Trail Blazers’ big man depth and continuing his strong all-around start to the year. He scored 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting, pulled down 12 rebounds (he’s averaging a career-best 10.5 rebounds per game for the season) and added a steal and three blocks.
Heading into the season, the hope for the Cavaliers taking another step forward was threefold: Donovan Mitchell would be even more comfortable and have another All-NBA season (so far, so good); Evan Mobley would grow into a fringe All-Star; and they would add shooters to the roster that would help them hit more 3-pointers.
On the surface that third goal wasn’t met in the game against the Trail Blazers; Mitchell went 5-for-8 from deep, but the rest of the team shot just 4-for-22 (18 percent). Caris LeVert still fought his way to 17 points but did so on 17 shots, shooting 1-for-7 from deep. From purely a “makes” standpoint, no one else stepped up from deep.
Yet that truth obscures a greater truth: Max Strus has been one of the very best players on this team all season, and he was again in this win over the Blazers.
Strus shot just 5-for-12, including 1-for-7 from deep. His 14 points were fine but nothing to write home about. He actually had five turnovers, hardly the sign of a deeply impactful player. And yet again, his fingerprints were all over the victory as he was +25 when on the court in the team’s 14-point win. The Cavs were therefore outscored by 11 points in the 11 minutes he sat.
This isn’t merely a one-time fluke, either. Max Strus is now +50 on the season despite playing for a 5-6 team. The Cavs have consistently been better with Strus on the court this year than when he has sat, despite the fact that he is shooting only 34.9 percent from 3-point range.
The gravity that Strus provides is light years ahead of what Isaac Okoro, Cedi Osman or even Caris LeVert provided last season. He isn’t an imposing defender but he knows where to be and fights hard. In different games this season he has had 12 assists, or made seven 3-pointers, or even tallied seven assists (as he did against Portland last night).
It won’t always show up in the box score. His numbers won’t always leap off the page. He isn’t shooting the ball as he would like; hopefully, that comes around. Yet what Strus provides is all of the little things, forming connective tissue and doing everything you could want from a role player. He is undersized at small forward, yes (although he played primarily shooting guard against the Blazers due to injury, a great adjustment from head coach J.B. Bickerstaff) but he is still helping the Cavs in ways that their other options can’t.
As Cleveland returns home and looks to get back to .500, they will continue to lean on their new addition to do so. Remember to look beyond the simply stats to see the many ways that Max Strus is helping the Cleveland Cavaliers win.
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