Bouncing back from a two-game losing streak to round out 2023, the Cleveland Cavaliers are looking to double down after their 101-140 blowout victory against the Washington Wizards two nights ago.
Amid the Cavaliers' tumultuous injury-ridden 2023-24 campaign, the team has finally caught a break with the league's second-easiest schedule throughout January. Following a close loss to the Toronto Raptors on New Year's Day, the Cavs rallied to a 39-point win to begin a two-game miniseries with the Wizards.
Despite the absence of star players Darius Garland and Evan Mobley, Cleveland gave their best performance of the season thus far with a season-high 37 assists on 54 made field goals. The Wizards return to Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse seeking revenge, while the Cavs have their eyes on advancing in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Cavaliers also witnessed stellar performances from a plethora of players, including Jarrett Allen's fifth consecutive double-double, notching 17 points and 19 assists in the victory alongside 7 assists. Max Strus led the game in scoring with 24 points off of a scorching 6-of-8 from deep. Donovan Mitchell followed closely behind with 22 points and a pair of both blocks and steals.
Since their recent injury woes, the Cavs have notched a 6-3 record with hopes to set themselves up for a strong run after the February All-Star break and both players return. While neither Mobley nor Garland has a definitive timetable to come back, the Cavs have maintained a newfound intensity to keep their playoff dreams alive.
Another win against Washington will secure the Cavaliers their second season-series win in a row and will set Cleveland up for two consecutive season sweeps if they win the third matchup on the road. In order to capitalize on their momentum after the win, the Cavs must keep focused and patch the remaining holes in their game before tip-off.
The Cavaliers need to be locked-in from the jump against an angry Wizards squad
It is hard to replicate a 140-point game, but Cleveland's win continued a developing offensive trend. The Cavaliers have ranked first overall in the NBA for three-pointers attempted over their last nine games (43.8) and second in assists (31.1). A similar performance should easily give the Cavaliers a two-game winning streak.
While the Cavs began the game slowly, they eventually recognized and then repeatedly exploited holes in Washington's defense. Whether Sam Merrill ran for an open catch-and-shoot attempt off of an off-ball screen or Caris LeVert forced defenders to overcommit and leave another man open, the Cavaliers' selfish and confident brand of basketball undoubtedly led the home win. This newfound scheme has been the deciding factor in each of their last six wins.
Not only have the Cavaliers won six of their last nine games, but they have been the only games in which Cleveland has made at least fifteen three-pointers in a game this season. Last season, the Cavs only reached this mark 18 times, winning 13 of those games. The Cavaliers have not defined themselves by their floor spacing, but leaning on it has brought them success when they have.
Another key element for the Cavs, though, will be better commitment on defense. After finishing the 2022-23 season with the league's best defensive rating, Cleveland ranks eighteenth in their last nine games and ninth throughout the entire season. While much of this slump can be attributed to the loss of Evan Mobley, the Cavaliers cannot use this as an excuse. They still have their other best defenders in Jarrett Allen, LeVert, Isaac Okoro and even rookie Craig Porter, Jr.
Even with Mobley, the Cavaliers have lost to worse teams earlier this season. In their home opener, the Cavs let a 10-point lead slip out of their hands to the Oklahoma City Thunder with just over two minutes left in regulation. While the Thunder have broken out into the higher echelons of competitors in the West this year, Cleveland's late-game defensive flaws are consistently present, allowing teams suddenly to rally and overthrow what should have been a definitive lead.
The Cavaliers' lack of defensive effort has been their downfall on nights when their three-point barrages are not falling. When the Cavs are off the mark, they do not have their defensive grit to fall back on. With a Wizards team looking for vengeance, Jordan Poole and Kyle Kuzma may enter the game with a vendetta against Cleveland. The Cavs cannot count on Poole and Kuzma to score drastically below their season averages again. Frankly, bad defense will not cut it.
Currently, the Cavaliers are tied for sixth place in the Eastern Conference at 19-15 with both the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers. All three teams play tonight, as Indiana hosts the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers visit New York. Both the Hawks (14-19) and 76ers (23-10) have significantly better records than the Wizards, giving Cleveland an advantage tonight in the ongoing quest to secure a guaranteed playoff berth.