The Cleveland Cavaliers took care of business this week as they won three of their four games. They are now a game and a half up on the seventh seeded Toronto Raptors and just two games out of having home court advantage in the first round.
Here’s what we learned this week.
Lauri Markkanen’s defense is keeping the Cavs in games.
Markkanen’s offensive inconsistencies were one of the biggest criticisms about his game during his time with the Chicago Bulls. That criticism has mostly held up in Cleveland. He can look like an offensive centerpiece when he has it going like he did against the Denver Nuggets but can become somewhat of an afterthought when his outside shot isn’t falling. Markkanen’s ability to positively impact games on the defensive end was not something he was known for in Chicago, but has shown here.
Markkanen was the primary defender on the two MVP frontrunners in back-to-back games. He wasn’t a lockdown defender by any stretch on either Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokić. But Markkanen being able to provide adequate coverage as the primary defender allowed Evan Mobley to play a more free-safety like position while limiting wear and tear on the rookie. The Cavs might not have been able to stay competitive if Mobley was forced to be the primary defender on either Embiid or Jokić.
Markkanen isn’t going to make an all-defensive team any time soon. He is helped by Mobley being his frontcourt mate. However, he has shown this season that he can be a good, versatile team defender when surrounded with other defensive pieces due to his length and lateral quickness. You can live with inconsistent offensive nights from someone you are can rely on defensively.
Isaac Okoro is trending in the right direction offensively.
Okoro had one of his most impressive offensive games of the year on Monday night against the Los Angeles Clippers. He was able to find a way to consistently attack the basket in the half-court off of cuts due to the increased attention Evan Mobley was receiving. This resulted in him finishing the game with 20 points and a career high 13 free throw attempts.
Okoro’s shooting numbers have improved over his last 20 games. In that span, he is shooting 48.1% from the floor, 39% from three on 2.1 attempts per game and most encouragingly 86.8% from the free throw line. He is shooting 90% from the line in March.
The second-year guard doesn’t need to be a good offensive player to make a positive impact on winning. His defense is and always will be his calling card. However, he does need to be serviceable offensively to not be a liability down the stretch and potentially in the playoffs. Okoro’s recent run shows that it is still entirely too early to give up on who he can become offensively.
Evan Mobley’s offensive instincts are ridiculous for a rookie.
A lot is said about Mobley’s feel on the defensive end and rightly so. He saved Friday’s game against the Nuggets with a late double on Jokić. Consistently making high IQ plays like that on the defensive end while being one of the best athletes at his size is why he should be in consideration for making an all-defensive team.
The conversation about his defense overshadows how instinctual he is on the offensive end. We’ve seen that on display more frequently as he’s been asked to do more in the starting lineup with Jarrett Allen sidelined. Since Allen’s injury, the rookie is averaging 20 points on 54.9% shooting from the field while contributing 10.6 boards, 2.8 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.8 blocks per game.
Mobley has been able to make a significant offensive contribution despite not being nearly as polished. I picked a not flashy play from every game this week to show how he is consistently making under the radar contributions on the offensive end.
Mobley was having a great scoring night against the Clippers by the time the game went into overtime. The rookie used that to his advantage. In the below clip, he catches the ball on the short roll from Darius Garland. He turns his back to the basket which invites the double team from Luke Kennard. Mobley quickly recognizes this and makes the simple pass to a cutting Okoro for what would be the game sealing basket.
The next play against the Philadelphia 76ers wasn’t anything spectacular but you don’t always need to be spectacular to score.
Here, Mobley finds himself in the dunkers spot when Garland is trapped up top. Garland throws it to Markkanen while Mobley creeps in for an easy backdoor basket. James Harden recognizes this and cheats down to take the easy pass away. Markkanen is instead forced to kick it to Okoro in the corner. Mobley doesn’t overreact but instead waits for the defense to forget about him. Harden does and Okoro makes the simple pass that leads to an uncontested dunk.
Mobley recognizes early on that Markkanen’s shot is off in the below play. The rookie retrieves the ball before it heads out of bounds, but has the wherewithal to find Garland with a pass only he can get to despite him being at least 30 feet away when Mobley jumps across the baseline. This is a play that can only be made by someone who has an understanding of where everyone is on the court before turning his back to it.
Mobley creates an open look in this last play without touching the ball or setting a screen against the Detroit Pistons.
The rookie recognizes an awkward cross-matchup in transition and takes advantage of it. Saddiq Bey is matched up on Mobley while Kelly Olynyk is on Cedi Osman. Knowing Olynyk is going to want to switch off of Osman, Mobley runs directly into Olynyk like he’s going to post up. Bey doesn’t recognize what Mobley is doing and is too late to switch onto Osman who gets a wide open shot. You can see Mobley directing Osman to the wing for the open shot.
None of these four plays are remarkable on their own. These aren’t going to make a highlight tape anytime soon. However, great offensive players have the ability to consistently make the understated right play for themselves and their teammates consistently which is what Mobley displays numerous times per game.