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What we learned about the Cleveland Cavaliers this week: December 12 - 18

The Cavs’ fourth quarter performances carried them to a 3-1 record.

Aaron Josefczyk-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers won three of their four games this week with the one loss coming against a poor San Antonio Spurs team. Here’s what we learned.

Kevin Love is still in a slump

It’s been a rough month for Love. He fractured his thumb during Nov. 18’s win over the Charlotte Hornets. He’s missed seven of the 15 games since and hasn’t been himself when he’s been able to be on the court. Love has only averaged 5.4 points on .333/.250/1.000 shooting with 5.5 rebounds in the 16.2 minutes per game in the eight games he’s played since the initial injury.

Playing with a thumb that isn’t fully healed seems incredibly difficult and is more than an acceptable excuse. That said, it’s hard to to justify his place on the floor when he isn’t trusting his outside shot and opposing team’s know it.

Love’s offense has always needed to outweigh his defense for him to be productive. He was doing that prior to the injury as he was averaging 11.3 points in 21.3 minutes while shooting 40.9% from distance. As a result, the Cavs were outscoring opponents by 11.2 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. Since the injury, the Cavs have been outscored by 4.8 points per 100 possessions with Love on.

There aren’t many reliable outside shooters, outside of the All-Star backcourt, who J.B. Bickerstaff trusts to give extended minutes to. Love is one of those players. When he isn’t able to trust his shot the entire team and offense suffers. Prior to the injury, the Cavs were second in three-point percentage while hitting 39.4% of their threes leading to the 7th ranked offense with a 115.5 offensive rating. Since, they’re 23rd in the league in three-point percentage at 33.4% with the 19th ranked offense and a 112.4 offensive rating.

It’s unfair to pin all of the offense’s shortcomings this last month on Love, but it does illustrate in part how important he is to this team. They simply aren’t the same when they can’t rely on his gravity and shooting to generate clean looks in the half court.

Evan Mobley isn’t afraid to take crucial threes.

Mobley hasn’t taken the leap forward as a shooter many were hoping he would after last season. He has taken less threes per game so far this campaign while not taking too much of a leap forward in his accuracy.

Mobley went 2-4 this week on three pointers with both threes coming at the end of close games. He hit a corner three from Darius Garland with just over 5 minutes left against the Indiana Pacers to cut the deficit to one after previously trailing the entire second half. He knocked down another corner three off a Garland drive-and-kick with three minutes left in the fourth the following night against the Dallas Mavericks to stretch the lead to four.

These two threes likely won’t result in Mobley becoming a willing three-point shooter, but it is at least a step in the right direction. You must have confidence in your shot to take and make threes late in close games like that.

The Cavs are also playing better in the clutch.

Cleveland had trouble starting games this week. They lost the first half in three of their four contests which set up the need for second half comebacks. The Cavs were up for the challenge as they won the fourth quarter a combined 119-81 over their opponents in the four games they played.

The Cavs have struggled with clutch time this season which is defined as a game within five points while there are less than five minutes to play. They came into this week being outscored by 7.7 points per 100 possessions with a defensive rating of 119.2 in the clutch.

The Cavs didn’t exercise their demons fully, but they did at least take a step in the right direction as they outscored their opponent by an average of 4.7 points in the three games that reached clutch time situations.

The Cavs still do questionable things at the end of games, like not start the offense while up one until less than 10 on the shot clock and inbound to Jarrett Allen out of an ATO when the other team is looking to foul. But this was at least progress in the right direction.

The Cavs have played better with Caris LeVert on.

The 55 minutes the trio of LeVert, Garland and Donovan Mitchell played the past two weeks have gone incredibly well as the Cavs have outscored opponents by 9.8 points per game when they share the floor. This has led to a 40.2(!) net rating with a 126.2 offensive rating and an 86 defensive rating during that stretch.

The comebacks this week have all been with LeVert on the floor. He’s played in over 42 of the 48 available fourth quarter minutes this week while having a 49.9 net rating in that stretch.

LeVert’s ability to provide tertiary ball handling and shooting to go along with the Garland and Mitchell backcourt has paid dividends this week. All the while, the team has not compromised their defensive identity with him on which has been the case throughout this season.

The Cavs have now notched a 106.2 defensive rating (95th percentile) when LeVert is playing the three. The five man unit of Garland, Mitchell, LeVert, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen has also produced a 7.5 net rating and a 101.5 defensive rating. For context, with Lamar Stevens in the starting lineup alongside the core four, Cleveland has posted a below average 115.8 defensive rating.

LeVert has talked about how he’s more comfortable coming off the bench. He feels like that is the best role for him. Whatever his role is to start games, it’s becoming more clear that the best version of this team includes LeVert with the starting five.

Donovan Mitchell continues to impress.

Mitchell has taken his game to another level in December. He’s averaging 32.6 points on .535/.429/.903 shooting splits while contributing 3.1 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game.

The four-time All-Star willed the team to victory multiple times this week while spurring frantic fourth quarter comebacks. This week, he contributed an average of 10 fourth quarter points on 50% shooting which included an incredible 41 point performance to close out the Pacers on Friday night.

Mitchell has been able to drag what has been a lifeless offense at times over the last few games to victory. He continues to show why Koby Altman and company made the bet they did this summer on him. They simply aren’t anywhere near the third spot in the conference without his contributions.

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