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What we learned about the Cavs from Dec. 28 - Jan. 3

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Fact: our Cleveland Cavaliers have a winning record and a top three defense.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Cavs finished the week going 1-2 which included a nice come from behind victory over the surging Atlanta Hawks and back-to-back losses to the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers. Here’s what we learned this week.

Injuries continue to be a problem.

The Cavs had a nine-month off-season and an unusually short training camp and preseason. This combination caused the preseason games to be sloppier than usual as the team was trying to find some semblance of cohesion. Unfortunately, the Cavs are still looking to find cohesion due to injuries.

J.B. Bickerstaff has used five different starting lineups in six games. While the team is 4-2, they are still trying to find their rhythm on the offensive end. You can see the structure of a decent team, but it’s hard to tell what exactly this team’s identity is when they have not been able to have consistent rotations. Bickerstaff and company deserve a lot of credit for keeping things afloat given the weird lineups he’s had to run out there (I’m looking at you JaVale McGee and Thon Maker lineups). It’s very surprising that he’s been able to get a winning record and a positive net rating out of a team missing two starters and two key bench contributors. That is not likely to continue if the injury issues worsen.

The defense has been eye-opening.

We’re less than 10% of the way through the season, but the defense has been impressive. It’s been the calling card of this team as they’ve posted a 101.8 defensive rating which is good for third in the league and have held opponents to a league-best 55.3% in the restricted area.

Larry Nance Jr. has been a menace on the defensive end. He has provided a league-leading 5.8 deflections per game while contributing 2 steals per game. We’ve seen Nance have good defensive stretches, but his game has risen to another level since being paired with legitimate rim protectors in Andre Drummond and JaVale McGee. The two-man lineups of Drummond and Nance have posted a 101.8 defensive rating and the pairing of Nance and McGee have put up a 93.4 defensive rating.

Nance has always had the length to be disruptive in passing lanes and disrupting plays from the weak side, but hasn’t had a chance to show that to the fullest extent in Cleveland due to the roster construction. Tristan Thompson is a great defensive center, but that pairing didn’t allow for Nance to showcase his skill set because Thompson wasn’t a rim-protector by any stretch. As a result, this is the first time we’ve really seen Nance be the best version of himself on the defensive end.

Having rim-protectors in Drummond and McGee allows for the bigs to play under screens while the guards have been aggressively going over screens. This forces the ballhandler to speed up their decision making which leads to more steals. As a result, the Cavs lead the league with 11.0 steals per game.

The Cavs don’t have the third-best defense in the league, but it is encouraging to see that there is a path for a Darius Garland and Collin Sexton backcourt to be good defensively. It’ll be interesting to see how this defense looks when Isaac Okoro returns to the lineup.

The lack of three-point shooting is concerning.

Despite good play from Sexton and encouraging signs from Garland, the offense has been pedestrian. The Cavs have posted a 104.2 offensive rating through six games which is good for 22nd in the league.

The biggest problem with the offense is the lack of three-point attempts generated. The Cavs have put up the lowest amount of threes in the league with just 27.8 per game. To put that in perspective, the Toronto Raptors are putting up 46.4 threes per game. The Cavs attempts are also down from last season as they put up four more attempts per game which ranked 20th in the league.

Missing Kevin Love and Dylan Windler obviously hurts in this area. However, it is still concerning that the Cavs are that low in three-point attempts per game. It’s very difficult to compete without shooting the three-ball effectively and in high volume. This is something that the Cavs will need to improve on if they want to compete for a playoff spot.

Collin Sexton can close in the fourth quarter after having a mediocre game.

Sexton has been tremendous so far. He’s adjusted well to playing off-ball and the numbers back that up. He’s averaging 26.0 points per game on .556/.550/.806 shooting splits which adds up to a 64.1 true shooting percentage. He’s also putting up these numbers while averaging a career low usage rate (24.0%) and career highs in assists (3.7) and free throw attempts per game (5.2). The third-year guard has also put up 25 or more points in four of his first six games. You couldn’t really ask for a better offensive start to the season.

Good players have an ability to turn around a so-so game in the fourth quarter to seal a victory. We’ve seen Sexton do well in games down the stretch before, but I don’t remember him taking over the fourth quarter of a game he didn’t have his A-game in.

Sexton had 14 points and an assist on 6 of 13 from the field through the first three quarters of Saturday’s game against Atlanta. The Cavs were down 15 early but clawed back to be down only 4 to start the fourth. Sexton carried them over the finish line with 13 fourth quarter points on 4 of 5 shooting which included a go-ahead three with 27.9 seconds left.

Sexton has shown he has the ability to score efficiently last season, but, due to the talent level on the roster, hasn’t been able to show he can consistently make winning plays. It was refreshing to see him outduel Trae Young and make winning plays down the stretch to close out a road win.