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What we learned about the Cavs from Jan. 3 - 10

The Cavs have seven rotation players missing, but still have the number one defense in the league. Who saw this coming?

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

This was another lost week of sorts for the Cavs. They played each game down six or seven rotation players which makes it tough to take away anything concrete from these games. With that said, it’s great to see J.B. Bickerstaff get the remaining players to buy-in which resulted in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday night.

Here’s what we learned this week.

The defense isn’t a fluke — even if it isn’t sustainable.

Cleveland currently leads the league in defensive rating (103.1), defensive points per game (103), estimated defensive rating (100.9), opponent turnovers (19.5), deflections (20.2), steals (10.4), and are second in the league in opponent field goal percentage within 5 feet (55.9). These stats show that the Cavs are best at the league in forcing turnovers through defensive activity and are one of the best teams at protecting the rim. That’s a solid recipe for having a good defense.

The bigs are responsible for the Cavs’ overachieving defense. Larry Nance Jr. has been dominant on that end as he leads the league in deflections (5.1) and steals (2.6) per game. Andre Drummond is third in the league with deflections (4.3) and seventh in steals (1.7) per game. These two, along with JaVale McGee have anchored the backline which is still the way to build a consistent regular season defense.

J.B. Bickerstaff has done a good job of building a defense around his team’s strength. He hasn’t been afraid to play a lot of zone, which leads to more deflections since you generally have more eyes on the ball in a zone. The defense has bought into Bickerstaff’s vision in man coverage too as the bigs drop while the guards fight over screens.

The Bucks have showed us the last couple years that the best way to play defense in the regular season is to protect the paint. The Cavs have done that better than almost every team and they’re doing that while forcing an insanely high level of deflections and steals. I’m skeptical about the long-term viability of the defense given who is out of the lineup and I don’t think we’ll see consistent effort like this if the Cavs fall out of the playoff race. However, the Cavs good defense thus far hasn’t been a fluke. They are doing the things necessary to be a great defense. Whether they continue to do those things is another story.

Isaac Okoro is worth watching.

Okoro’s numbers don’t jump off the page at all. 6.6 points and 2 assists per game don’t exactly scream future All-Star. However, his stats don’t tell the whole story. Okoro stole Thursday’s game in Memphis with a chase-down block and a game clinching bucket in the final minutes. He’s consistently been the Cavs’ best perimeter defender which is a rare thing to say about a rookie.

His feel and instincts for the game are advanced for his age. He has a knack for being in the right place at the right time on both ends of the floor. He also has the athleticism and skills to make a productive play when he’s in the right position.

Okoro is far from a finished product. He has a lot of room to grow offensively as a ball handler and a shooter, but we’ve seen good things from him when he does get to the rim. Watching him develop has been one of the most enjoyable parts of this season. I’m excited to see how he looks once more rotation players return to the lineup.

J.B. Bickerstaff has his players bought in

It sounds cheesy to say this, but it’s fun to watch a team that plays with a purpose. Bickerstaff has every player hustling and completely bought in no matter how short-handed they are. Saturday’s game against Milwaukee is a great example of that. The Bucks stretched out the lead to over 15 multiple times in the second half, but the Cavs kept clawing themselves back into the game and simply wouldn’t give up.

That buy-in is why the defense is as good as it is and why this team is still .500 despite their terrible injury luck. We’ll see if this team can stay bought in throughout a long season. It’s one thing to buy-in the first ten games, but it’s harder to do that when you start to fall out of the playoff picture. If this team can stay bought in like they are, I believe they can make a run at one of the play-in spots.