It was a weird week for the Cleveland Cavaliers. They lost two games they should’ve won while stealing one against the Portland Trail Blazers. Cleveland finished their recent Western Conference road trip 2-3 and were 2-2 this week.
Here’s what we learned from the up and down week.
Isaac Okoro has a defined role.
J.B. Bickerstaff has had a difficult time finding a fifth starter. Okoro isn’t a perfect option — no one currently on this team is. While the lineup data hasn’t been great with the core four and Okoro since he’s been inserted again into the starting lineup, -9.7 net rating through five games, he has played more consistently.
Okoro’s offensive skillset isn’t best suited to play in a slower paced offense that includes two traditional bigs. Adding high-usage All-Star guards into the mix doesn’t help him establish any rhythm either. This has relegated Okoro to the corner on offense being utilized as either a cutter or a shooter.
While putting Okoro in a box constrains how he can be used, it does give him the consistent role that he’s lacked at times. As a result, nearly all of Okoro’s shots are either corner threes or drives to the basket. Of the 93 shots Okoro has taken since December 15, only 10 have not been corner threes or attempts at the rim. If you look just his attempts since being reinserted into the starting lineup on January 2, he’s only taken 4 of his 42 shots from places other than the corer three or the rim.
Since December 15, Okoro is finishing 65.8% of his attempts at rim (27-41) and 37.8% on corner threes (14-37). In his last seven games, Okoro is shooting 47.1% on 8-17 shooting on corner threes.
Becoming a reliable three-point shooter has and always will be the dream for Okoro. But, no matter what percentage he hits from outside for the remainder of the season, he likely will never be able to keep his defender glued on him in the corner if the alternative is giving up a free run down the lane for one of the bigs or the All-Star guards. The best way for him to keep defenders honest is by better using his finishing ability at the rim to keep defenders honest.
His performance against the New Orleans Pelicans showed how that could work. In the clip below, Okoro’s defender Trey Murphy III leaves him to help defend the Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen pick-and-roll. Okoro rightly stays in the corner because there isn’t a passing lane to get it to him if he were to cut right away. As soon as Garland turns the corner, Okoro cuts to daylight and gets the uncontested dunk.
In this next clip, Okoro could’ve moved a half second or so earlier to get to the basket. As soon as the defender turns his back to him to help the Garland drive, the lane is wide open. Even so, Okoro is able to get a running start to the basket and finish in traffic.
These are the plays Okoro needs to continue to make. No matter how good of a corner three-point shooter he becomes, teams will always force him to shoot them given the alternatives. Finding a way to use his finishing ability more frequently in addition to his corner shot is the best way to counter that and help this year.
Bickerstaff can’t use Okoro’s defensive ability if he clogs the offensive flow. Okoro has the skills to not be the liability he’s been at times this season and in the first two seasons of his career.
Darius Garland has been a different player home and away.
It’s not atypical for players to perform better at home. Especially for a team like the Cavs that has a dramatic difference in home and away records (19-4 at home and 9-13 away). That said, Garland’s splits are jarring.
We saw both sides of that on display this week. While Garland was great closing out the Trail Blazers in Portland last Thursday, he was also non-existent at times when the Cavs were blowing a 14-point second-half lead against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Conversely, Garland willed the Cavs to victory at home Monday afternoon against the Pelicans by scoring 14 in the final quarter including two dagger step-back threes.
The old rule of thumb is role players can help at home but you need your stars to win consistently on the road. The Cavs haven’t gotten the consistent performances they’ve needed from their star point guard on the road like they have needed.
The Cavaliers continue to play better with Ricky Rubio on the floor.
Rubio’s box score stats have been unremarkable in the three games he’s played since returning from injury. Through 44 minutes, Rubio has compiled 14 points on 5-13 shooting (33.3%) with 6 boards and 3 assists. Nothing about those numbers is anything to get excited about. However, it is also worth noting that the Cavs outscored their opponent with 13 points in those minutes while losing the other 104 minutes by 5 in those three games.
Coming back from an ACL injury is tough. It generally takes a player two years from the injury to completely be back to normal. This is especially true for someone who’s suffered the same injury prior to the most recent one.
Rubio likely won’t physically be the player he was last season. He’ll continue to have moments, like the one below, where he looks like he hasn’t missed a step. But, that will be the exception and not the norm.
Ricky Rubio with his first bucket of the season!— NBA (@NBA) January 13, 2023
Welcome back, @rickyrubio9 pic.twitter.com/95Zx4AIGWO
What Rubio does provide, and should for the remainder of this season, is his tremendous feel for the game. It’s easy to focus on his offensive playmaking and his ridiculous ability to find the open guy and destabilize defenses. But, that same feel translates to the defensive end of the floor.
The below play isn’t the most heady play or one that will garner much attention. But, correct plays like this are what Rubio does on a consistent basis.
Here, Jonas Valanciunas starts with the ball on the wing, delivers a pass to the curling CJ McCollum then delivers a pindown screen on his defender Rubio. Rubio fights over the screen to keep McCollum from getting an open look from distance while still being in control enough to ensure that McCollum doesn’t draw another three-point foul. This all forces McCollum to dump it into Valanciunas. As soon as the big man puts the ball on the floor, Rubio digs down to prevent him from facing up and getting to the rim. In the process, Valanciunas ends up throwing the ball away.
There is nothing spectacular about this play, but there is no one else on this roster who consistently makes these kind of plays on both. It’s also one of the things the Cavs have been missing. This is why the team will continue to be better with Rubio on the floor, like they were last season, than they are without him.