The Cleveland Cavaliers won two of their three games this week including a thrilling 21 point come back victory over the Indiana Pacers.
Here’s what we learned this week.
First quarters have been a problem in February.
The Cavs made a habit of cruising to blowout victories earlier in the season by getting out to early leads. The Cavs had the best first quarter net rating in the league through January 31 as they were outscoring opponents by 12.5 points per 100 possessions. They were doing that by being active on the defensive end and turning stops into easy offense.
The defense has been non-existent in the first quarter in February. The Cavs have given up over 30 points in five of the last six games which has led to a 135.3 first quarter defensive rating during that span. They are getting outscored by 39.3 points per 100 possession in the first quarter this month.
The Cavs have miraculously not allowed dreadful first quarter starts to impact them as much as it should’ve given that they are 4-2 this month. However, coming out with poor effort levels to start games is not a good habit to get into and is not something you can get away with against good teams. The Cavs fell down by 18 to the Philadelphia 76ers before fighting back and taking a brief 2 point lead in the third quarter. The Sixers were able to retaliate and come away with a stress-free 10 point victory.
There’s no good explanation for why this is happening. My guess would be that the Cavs are running into a collective wall which has led them to not starting games with the energy they need to in order to be successful. The all-star break appears to be coming at the perfect time for this team.
You can never count the Cavs out.
Lackadaisical play in the first quarter has forced the Cavs to become a second half team. As a result the Cavs are outscoring opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions in the second half this month and have posted a 99.3 defensive rating.
Teams that can turn up the defensive intensity are never out of games. We saw that evidenced best with their two recent come from behind victories against the Pacers. The Pacers were held to a combined 77 points, committed 20 turnovers and shot 32.5% from the field in the second halves of the Feb. 6 and 11 games.
The Cavs have been resilient all season no matter the obstacles that have been thrown their way. Hopefully for them they can cut down on needing to overcome self inflected deficits like they’ve had to this month.
Caris LeVert could be a defensive fit.
LeVert hasn’t traditionally been known as a great defender despite having good size and length for his position. Having Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen waiting at the rim allows you to be more aggressive at the point of attack which is something LeVert has done in his first three games in Cleveland as evidenced by his six steals.
His aggressiveness was best illustrated by this contest on Chris Duarte at the end of Friday’s game. LeVert picked up Duarte soon after crossing half court and aggressively stayed with him on the perimeter. LeVert wasn’t worried about being blown by with Allen and Mobley waiting at the rim. He used his length to force Duarte into a bad shot as the shot clock expired.
Despite the steals and the above clip, LeVert hasn’t been great defensively overall as he’s still learning how to fit in with the Cavs. He has been over aggressive at times which has been seen most in the way he’s closed out onto shooters.
Lauri Markkanen has shown that you don’t need to be a perfect defender to fit in with Mobley and Allen roaming the back line. You just need to use your size and length to aggressively contest shots on the perimeter knowing that if you do get beat off the dribble there is help at the rim.
The goal would ideally be for LeVert to close games similar to how Ricky Rubio did. For him to do that consistently he will need to be able to fit in on the defensive end. LeVert has shown flashes of being a good fit with his defense and he should continue to improve as he adjusts to a different playing style.
Evan Mobley offensive potential may be just as limitless as his defensive.
The rookie’s offensive impact has been solid although less impressive than his defense on a night to night basis. That said, there are still plays he makes like his reverse layup against the Washington Wizards that give a glimpse of how good of an offensive player he could become in a few seasons. Mobley’s pass out of a double team to a cutting Isaac Okoro in the fourth quarter against Indiana wasn’t as flashy, but is much more meaningful for his offensive ceiling.
In the clip below we see Mobley set a screen on Chris Durate who is guarding Cedi Osman which forces a switch. Osman follows it up by promptly throwing a post entry pass to Mobley to exploit the mismatch.
Oshae Brissett quickly comes over to double which cuts off Mobley’s ability to spin baseline and finish over Duarte. Duane Washington Jr. and Lance Stephenson correctly rotate over to cut off the paint taking away any easy pass out of the double team. With Osman closely guarded, it appears that his best option would be an off-balanced skip pass to Rajon Rondo that might not get there.
Instead of forcing a wild shot or pass to Rondo, the rookie calmly dribbles out of the paint (easier said than done with a guard on your hip) and resets. Mobley then faces up on Duarte, takes it baseline to the basket and then delivers a perfect pass over Brissett to a cutting Okoro for a layup late in the shot clock.
Good offensive big men are going to get doubled frequently when they catch the ball in the post. What separates good from great post players is the ability to consistently make the right play when the double team comes. You don’t want to extrapolate too much out of one good play, but things like this are important for big men and its incredibly rare for a rookie to make a play like this late in a close game.
Mobley can already make defensive plays that only a handful of other players in the league can make. It’s scary to think about what kind of defensive player he’ll develop into when he matures. His offensive game hasn’t been nearly as impressive but it may have the same limitless potential. You simply don’t see stuff like this often from 20 year old bigs.