Who are these Cleveland Cavaliers?
This group has missed three starters, Donovan MItchell, Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, for a third of the season. The other two, Evan Mobley and the rising Cleveland legend Mad Max Strus, haven’t missed work yet, and somehow, the outfit is cruising above .500 after a 3-5 start. Did I mention that top perimeter defenders Caris LeVert and Isaac Okoro were out three and nine games, too?
Most importantly, the Cavaliers did not panic, and there is optimism for the team's direction and what it could be if, goodness willing, everyone gets healthy enough.
After the group’s win in Philly, arguably the most significant of the year, head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said its mental toughness and trust prevented it from letting go of the rope. It meant a lot to the team and the supporters watching because that came without Donovan Mitchell, who opposing defenses scheme for first.
In the last three outings, the Cavaliers played the Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat, some of the best in the business, and finished 2-1 before Thanksgiving.
Below are some observations from Keeping Up with the Cavs. Let’s review:
Hosting the champs
First, the Cavs held the champs to 87.5 points per 100 halfcourt plays, ranking in the 24th percentile for all games logged this season (subscription required). Of course, the Nuggets missing trigger man, Jamal Murray, since Nov. 6, means it's not near full strength and are 4-4 afterward.
Regardless, Nikola Jokić is the hardest cover in the league, and the Nuggets are a big team built to secure the glass, disrupt the passing lanes and not suffer on switches. Joker was feasting through two quarters, but Allen’s post-defensive persistence (and catching an elbow to the head) put him in foul trouble and on the bench all but 10 minutes of the second half. Subsequently, the Nuggets were without their V12 engine and registered four of 12 baskets for the rest of the frame.
But before that pivotal moment in the third, where Allen absorbed two fouls in 22 seconds, the Cavaliers were ahead 66-58 at halftime. Mobley had a dozen points on 86 percent shooting on putbacks, multiple jumpers at the nail over Aaron Gordon (a top-five defender) and rim rolls. Darius Garland killed Denver’s drop coverage and caught a pass on the move when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sagged off for an inside cut and finish. And two-way rookie Craig Porter Jr. pressured the rim, adding 11 points in the half with five coming at the line.
In the second half, with Cleveland up 11, Mobley recovered a defensive rebound, took the ball upcourt, and lobbed it to Allen, cutting on the baseline. Garland continued torching the low man and schooled rookie Julian Strawther from the top to the hoop. And Allen recorded 13 points on five of seven attempts.
The Cavs also damaged the offensive glass, grabbing 11 boards that turned into 19 second-chance points. It impressively got to the line for 26 attempts, too, which disrupted the Nuggets’ offense.
This is a quality win, but hopefully, on March 31, Murray is present so that the Cavaliers can get a taste of the toughest two-man unit to defend with him and the Joker. It’s expected that Cleveland will mix in trapping him at the baseline with blitzes up top when defending PNR or DHO sets. But covering it against those two is a double-edged sword because of Murray’s quickness and jump shot in combination with the Joker’s passing.
One thing is sure: When Murray comes back and has to see the Cavs, the strategy cannot be to shade away from him at the wing or corner to flash a double at Jokić in the post. Cleveland’s length would not beat the speed of the pass.