2 Cleveland Cavaliers who have defined their defensive excellence in the NBA Playoffs

Orlando Magic v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Seven
Orlando Magic v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Seven / Jason Miller/GettyImages

The Cleveland Cavaliers season was hanging in the balance. Down 18 in the second quarter to the feisty Orlando Magic, the Cavs looked lifeless. Fans were getting restless, booing the team at every timeout. It seemed that this would possibly be Donovan Mitchell’s last game as a Cavalier and J.B. Bickerstaff’s last game as head coach alongside other sweeping changes.

Instead, the Wine and Gold fought back and cut the deficit to ten points by halftime. Then in the second half, they blitzed the young Magic, outsourcing them 63-41 and reverting back to the mentality that they had in the early parts of their rebuild: winning the scrap and being junkyard dogs. Two players sparked the comeback and they were lottery picks that the Cavs tapped as part of their core: Isaac Okoro and Evan Mobley. 

How Okoro and Mobley saved the Cavaliers season

Okoro and Mobley have battled offensive limitations over their first few years in the league. For Okoro, it was his lack of three-point shot, as teams would dare him to shoot and he would sometimes be unplayable in big games because of his inability to shoot. This season, Okoro improved his shot, shooting a career high 39 percent. Unfortunately, in the Orlando series Okoro shot only 24 percent from three and his role was questioned once again.

He didn’t need to be a lights-out shooter, though, because his defense was so invaluable, especially on Paolo Banchero in the second half. He accepted the challenge after entering the starting lineup in the wake of Jarrett Allen's third game missed in the series. Okoro held Banchero to three-of-10 shooting in the second half, despite giving up nearly five inches in height and 25 pounds. He was also putting his body on the line, taking charges and diving for loose balls.

In his 33 minutes, the Cavs outscored the Magic by a whooping 25 points. The impact of Okoro cannot be ignored. He shut down Banchero, one of the game’s rising young stars, after he dominated the Cavs inside and outside. 

As for Mobley, he came with much higher expectations this season, but he was quickly sidetracked with injuries. He missed 32 games in the regular season due to knee surgery and an ankle sprain.

He also did not fully develop his three-point shot, although he shot a career high 37 percent on about one attempt per game. As a result, when he shared the court with Jarrett Allen against the Magic, the Cavs had an offensive rating below 105.

With Allen missing the last three games, Mobley stepped up in a major way. He had the game-sealing block in Game 5, but in Game 7, he was masterful in the paint. Mobley finished with 11 points and 16 rebounds, five of them being offensive rebounds. He played with a different level of physicality and force, and even though he finished with six turnovers, he was being aggressive, which is what matters as the Cavs look to develop Mobley into a game-changing talent alongside Donovan Mitchell.

Mobley also recorded five blocks, his second consecutive game doing that. He became the first player in franchise history with five blocks in two consecutive games. He finished the series with 21 blocks, more than the entire Minnesota Timberwolves in their four-game sweep against the Phoenix Suns. In addition to that, Mobley held Banchero to 32-percent shooting when he was the primary defender.

It is no question. The Cavs are not moving on without their two young defensive stalwarts. This is what they drafted them to do: step up for the team in big moments on the defensive end. The task only gets tougher for them now, as they are set to see a lot of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in this series. 

For Okoro, he has seen a lot of success defending Jaylen Brown, holding him to one-for-11 shooting as the primary defender this regular season. He also held Tatum to three-of-eight shooting as his primary defender.

As for Mobley, he has not seen much of Tatum and Brown this season, given that he missed the first two regular season matchups and got hurt in the third. Still last season, Mobley held Brown to 41-percent shooting as his primary defender. He has not seen a lot of Tatum for the past two seasons, but Mobley’s length and quick feet could cause issues for Boston’s star.

The Cleveland Cavaliers will be putting a lot on the plates of Okoro and Mobley against two All-NBA caliber players. The youngsters will no doubt be up for the challenge, but if the Cavs want to reach the conference finals for the first time in six seasons, Mobley and Okoro are going to need to continue showing their elite defensive prowess.

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