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Cleveland Cavaliers v Toronto Raptors

What we learned about the Cleveland Cavaliers this week: Feb. 28 - March 6

The Cavs still cling to a playoff spot despite injuries and string of bad play.

Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

It was a rough week for the Cleveland Cavaliers as they dropped three of their four games. Fortunately, the one game they did win was against the Toronto Raptors which gives them a 3 game lead over the 7th seed.

Here’s what we learned this week.

All-Star Darius Garland has taken his game to another level.

Garland’s game has taken off since being named an all-star reserve on February 3. In the six games he’s played since he’s averaging 26.7 points and 8 assists with .543/.476/.875 shooting splits. Garland’s game has taken a leap this season, but it feels like he’s taken another one after receiving the all-star nod.

Garland’s performance has always seemed to fluctuate based on his confidence level. Being recognized as an all-star seems to have increased his confidence and allowed him to play freer. He appears more sure of himself and the results have followed.

This more aggressive play has however led to an uptick in turnovers. He is averaging 5.8 turnovers per game during this recent stretch which has led to a 1.37 assist/turnover ratio. To put that in perspective, he was averaging 3.6 turnovers a game and had a 2.24 assist/turnover ratio prior to February 3.

The defense is not in a good place.

The Cavs success this year has largely been derived from their defense. That defense has gradually dipped since the Ricky Rubio injury but has fallen more drastically since the start of February.

There are many factors to blame for the defense’s decline including the lack of available guards, appearing fatigued and a lack of effort to open games. If I had to chose one of those three factors to blame most I would choose fatigue.

We often think of fatigue as leading to a lack of effort, but fatigue can also lead to mental errors. This is something that we’ve seen more in recent weeks (although not as much against Philadelphia and Toronto) than we did at the start of the season. The Charlotte Hornets game on Wednesday was a great example of this.

Here we saw the Cavs lose containment in a 5 on 4 setting which is never ideal. Miles Bridges drove baseline and beat Lauri Markkanen off the dribble. Kevin Love, Jarrett Allen and Isaac Okoro all collapse to the paint to cut off the drive. Bridges is able to kick it out to a wide open Kelly Oubre for a three.

The Cavs give Oubre another open three in the below clip due to miscommunication. The Cavs weren’t switching screens for most of the night. Here, Oubre sets a screen on Darius Garland. Lamar Stevens switches onto Isaiah Thomas while Garland fights through the screen to also stay on Thomas. Thomas makes the easy pass leading to another Oubre three.

This last play we see the Cavs handle Oubre’s initial drive well. Markkanen gets beat off the dribble, Allen steps up to help and Mobley comes down and cuts off the drop pass to Mason Plumlee. Oubre misses but the Hornets get the rebound. Cedi Osman does not rotate down to Bridges in the corner to cut off the easy pass but instead starts to head up court before freezing on the wing. Mobley makes no attempt to close out giving Bridges an uncontested look to end the Cavs attempt for a comeback.

Mistakes like this are why the Cavs haven’t been able to capitalize on their easier schedule after the all-star break even with the injuries to their guards. These errors have become commonplace lately despite being rare the first three and a half months of the season. The Cavs cannot afford to keep making mistakes like this coming down the stretch.

Cedi Osman and Kevin Love have kept an injured bench afloat.

The Cavs played their best this week with the bench on the court thanks in part to the play of Cedi Osman and Kevin Love.

Osman is a streaky shooter who always plays with more confidence in all aspects of his game when he’s shooting well. His shot has been finding the bottom of the net recently as he finished the week averaging 16.8 points on .500/.419/.838 shooting splits.

Love had his shot working as well as he averaged 14.8 points on .444/.480/.882 shooting splits while contributing 6.3 rebounds and 3 assists per game this week. The Cavs outscored opponents by 11.3 points per 100 possessions in the 69 minutes Osman and Love shared the floor this week.

The Cavs are once again without a key piece.

The Cavs can’t seem to catch a break from injuries. Jarrett Allen is out indefinitely after suffering a thigh contusion and a fractured finger in Sunday’s win against Toronto. The Cavs are currently 2-6 this season without Allen in the lineup.

JB Bickerstaff has tried to keep the same identity and rotations in place through injuries. Unfortunately, they will not be able to replicate their big, imposing brand of basketball without Allen in the middle of the paint.

Instead, the Cavs will likely have to shoot their way through Allen’s absence. The Cavs haven’t been a good outside shooting team this season as they are shooting 35.2% from deep (15th in the league) on 33.4 attempts per game (22nd) but it isn’t something that they’ve emphasized with three non-shooters in the starting lineup. That will inevitably change with Allen sidelined.

Ed Davis will see increased minutes and could find himself starting the first and third quarters just to keep the rotations somewhat similar. However, the majority of Allen’s minutes will go to Love, Osman and Dean Wade with Mobley playing the five. This should allow for better spacing and give Mobley more room to operate.

Things are not as simple on the defensive end. The Allen and Mobley pairing has been instrumental to the team’s success while also allowing them to vary their defensive coverages. We saw them jump out to an early lead against the Philadelphia 76ers by running a 3-2 defense with Mobley at the top of the defense and Allen roaming the backline. Those types of defenses simply can’t exist without either Mobley or Allen.

Mobley will be forced into playing the majority of his minutes at center which isn’t something he’s been asked to do this season. The rookie has done a good job of limiting his personal fouls as he’s averaged just 2.2 per game. This could be due in part to him not being the primary rim protector all game. Mobley was forced into that role after the first quarter on Sunday and picked up 5 fouls with 4 of them coming after Allen’s injury. It’s one game, but it could be something to keep an eye on going forward.

The Cavs will not be able to make a run in the playoffs without Allen, but I believe they can still compete in the regular season provided they’re able to increase their outside shooting and Mobley is up for the challenge defensively.

Cavs are in a good spot to avoid the play-in.

The Cavs are now 3 games up on the Raptors and hold the tiebreaker over them with just 18 games left. Things can change quickly given the injuries and their upcoming schedule, but the Cavs are in a good position to secure their first playoff birth without LeBron James since 1998.

It seems unlikely given Allen’s injury, but it’s still possible for the Cavs to host game 1 of a playoff series this season despite their post all-star break slide. They’re still just 2 games behind the Chicago Bulls for the 4th spot and play them twice more this season including Saturday night.

Every game from here on out has playoff and seeding implications. It’ll be fun to see how this young team handles the coming weeks.

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