The Cleveland Cavaliers took care of business away from home. They swept, in rather convincing fashion, a three-game road trip against the Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat and Washington Wizards before falling to the Utah Jazz on Sunday afternoon.
Here’s what we learned from a fun week.
The Cavs keep getting off to fast starts.
The Cavs were able to jump out to an early lead in all three of their road wins as they scored 30 points or more in the opening quarter of every victory. During their recent four game winning streak, the Cavs averaged 30.5 points — translating to an average lead of 8 points after the opening frame.
Getting off the fast starts is something the Cavs have consistently done all season thanks to their defense. Opponents are averaging 24.5 points which has led to a 98.6 defensive rating in the first quarter which is second best in the league. The Cavs are also outscoring opponents by 2.9 points in the opening frame — also good for second best in the league.
A lot was made about the Cavs blowing leads during their recent five game losing streak without Evan Mobley. However, they never get those leads in the first place without a strong opening frame. Those leads are translating to wins now that they have a more complete roster.
Jarrett Allen is setting the tone.
Allen has taken his game to another level since returning to the lineup a few weeks ago. Coming into Sunday’s game against Utah, the 23-year old center was averaging 23.2 points, 12.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game on 73.7% shooting since his return to the lineup on November 22nd.
Allen has done an excellent job of getting the offense started as he’s averaging 9.2 points per game in the first quarter during that stretch and is one of the main reasons Cleveland is dominating first quarters.
The Cavs have made it a priority to establish the Darius Garland and Allen high pick-and-roll early in games. The high pick-and-roll is the base that the rest of the offense is run through. It has the equivalent effect of establishing the run game in the beginning of a football game. If you can establish the run, the passing game and the rest of the offense opens up.
The same has been true for the Cavs offense. We’ve seen big games from shooters like Lauri Markkanen, Kevin Love, and Garland. Those shooters are able to get cleaner looks after the defense is being forced to collapse and protect the rim against Allen.
Darius Garland is becoming more consistent.
One of the biggest knocks against Garland coming into the season was that his aggression and scoring were inconsistent. He’d have games where the outside shot was falling and he looked like a future All-Star. But he couldn’t consistently make a positive impact on the offense when the shot wasn’t falling,
It seems like that isn’t a problem anymore. Garland is averaging 19.1 points and 7.3 assists per game on .467/.378/.863 shooting splits. He has also compiled a 55.4 effective field goal percentage and a 58.2 true shooting percentage which are both above league average (league average EFG is 52% and league average true shooting is 55.3% this season according to basketball-reference). The increased efficiency is due to him becoming more comfortable taking threes as he’s averaging 7 three-point attempts per game this season compared to the 4.9 he averaged last season.
Garland has taken his game to another level since Allen returned to the lineup on November 22nd. Not counting Sunday’s game against Utah, Garland has averaged 23 points and 8.3 assists during that stretch.
The Cavs are winning because of their defense, but Garland and his connection with Allen are keeping the offense afloat. It’s been fun to see Garland transform into the premier point guard many believed he could be.
Kevin Love, playing well in short spurts.
Love has handled the transition to the bench better than expected considering his up and mostly down mood the last three seasons. The veteran is averaging 11.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2 assists with .412/.353/.949 shooting splits in just over 20 minutes per game. He seems to have found his shot since returning to the team after being on the Covid list as he has scored over 10 points in six of his last nine games and is averaging 12.5 points and 7.9 assists on 43.2% shooting from three.
Coming off the bench has provided Love the opportunity to play aggressively and unapologetically look for his own shot which isn’t something you’d necessarily want him to do if he was in the starting lineup. Per 36 numbers are rarely a good way to compare players and their role.
It can be helpful to put shot attempts and production into perspective. Love is averaging 8.1 three-point attempts (highest since 18-19), 15.6 shots (highest since 18-19) and 13.6 rebounds (second highest since coming to Cleveland) per 36 minutes. This illustrates that he is able to come into games and be the best version of himself for short bursts which is exactly what this bench needs.
Love’s days of being the focal point of an offense are long behind him, but his ability to impact the game in short spurts is not. We’re seeing the idealized version of Love off the bench this season and the Cavs are better off for it.
The Cavs are good.
It’s hard to erase the last three years of terrible basketball from our memory. We saw glimpses of decent basketball, but they never lasted. Mostly because what was making them successful in short stints wasn’t sustainable over a full season. That isn’t the case this season.
The numbers show that the Cavs are a good team that should continue to get better throughout the season. Coming into Sunday’s game, the Cavs have the 8th best point differential in the league, are giving up the 2nd fewest points per game (101.7) and have the 2nd best defensive rating (104.2). On top of that, 11 of their 13 wins have come against teams that are currently in the play-in or better. They also haven’t lost to a team with a losing record this season.
The defensive pairing of Allen and Mobley have been the backbone of this team. The Cavs are allowing 96.5 points per 100 possessions (not counting Sunday’s game) when the pairing is on the floor and are 13-6 in games both are playing in.
The Cavs are having this success despite having by far the hardest schedule in the league thus far and having terrible injury luck to start the season. One of the benefits of having the hardest schedule to start the season is that it will eventually ease up. The Cavs are projected to have the easiest remaining schedule in the league and should be in a position to make a run .
The Cavs are a team with a clear identity with pieces that fit together. Their lengthy and versatile defense provides a consistent floor which has allowed them to compete in nearly every game this season. This team should continue to rise up the standings considering the easier schedule going forward and more time to adjust to their roles.