The Cleveland Cavaliers went 2-1 this week with impressive wins over the Memphis Grizzlies and Indiana Pacers. Here’s what we learned from these three games.
J.B. Bickerstaff is finding interesting ways to use Isaac Okoro.
Teams have largely ignored Okoro in the half court. This is nothing new as opponents have been known to hide their best defender on Okoro to use as a free safety or have hid their worst defender on him to cover up that weakness, like the Atlanta Hawks did with Trae Young in last season’s play-in.
Okoro has made noticeable improvements this season. But, of late, the coaching staff is finding different ways to use Okoro when teams put their weakest defender on him. The most recent example of this was the Grizzlies hiding Ja Morant on him.
The Cavs were able to use this to their advantage as they weaponized Okoro’s strength against Morant. Okoro was able to attack the star guard in a simple post up with Evan Mobley delivering the entry pass and no one in the strong side corner. The weakside help is too late to affect the shot as Desmond Bane is understandably hesitant to leave Donovan Mitchell open in the corner.
More interestingly though, the Cavs were able to create an easy basket for Okoro by having Ricky Rubio setting a back pick on Morant freeing him up for the easy basket. Tyus Jones doesn’t even think about switching allowing Okoro to get a clean look after the pump fake.
The Cavs have also used Okoro as an on-ball screener with much more regularity in recent games. These play types aren’t revolutionary, but they are a good way to use someone like Okoro who is a good finisher at the rim (67.3% this season) but doesn’t necessarily have the handles to attack off the dribble on his own.
Teams will undoubtedly continue to leave Okoro in the half court. You have to pick your poison when you’re dealing with an All-Star caliber backcourt and a physically imposing front court. Getting Okoro more comfortable as a spot up shooter is important, but finding creative ways to turn his limitations into a mismatch like they did against Memphis turns a weakness into an advantage. Basketball at the highest levels is all about turning weaknesses into advantages.
Donovan Mitchell is in a slump.
Mitchell has had a tough go of it since returning from his injury on January 24 against the New York Knicks. In the five games he’s been able to play in since, he’s averaged 15.2 points on .354/.318/.857 shooting with 5.8 assists. The raw numbers are brought down by his ejection in the third quarter on Thursday night. However, the efficiency just isn’t close to what we’ve come to expect this season.
The burst from Mitchell hasn’t been there. The Cavs had a chance to manufacture a tough win over the Miami Heat on Tuesday, but Mitchell couldn’t get anything going offensively. Thirteen of his 17 shot attempts that evening came from beyond the arc as he looked more like a bystander as he finished with just one point in the final quarter.
Thursday against Memphis wasn’t much better. He didn’t settle from the outside like he did against Miami, but he couldn’t finish in the paint against a short-handed team that was without their front line of Steven Adams and Jaren Jackson Jr. He was repeatedly forced to take floaters instead of getting to the basket, initiating contact and finishing through the contact like he has for most of the season.
It seemed like Mitchell turned a corner in Sunday’s game against Indiana. After starting 0-6, Mitchell hit five shots in a row from the end of the second quarter through the start of the third. Unfortunately, that appeared to just be a blimp as he closed the game shooting just 1-7 from the field en route to a 19 points on 18 shots kind of night.
The groin injury is likely to blame for the slump. Whatever the cause, Mitchell simply hasn’t looked like the guy we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in his last handful of games. The All-Star break can’t come fast enough for him.
Kevin Love is out of the rotation.
Love was available to play this week but never saw the floor. It’s difficult to make proclamations about what this means for the rotation long term as the Cavs will be active at the deadline. At least for the time being, Love has lost his spot.
This isn’t too surprising. Love hasn’t been the same player he was last season or at the start of this one due to his injured thumb. Prior to injuring his thumb on November 18 Love was averaging 11.3 points on .425/.409/.861 shooting. Those numbers translated to 19 points per 36 minutes which was on par with his per 36 numbers last season. Since the injury, he’s averaging just 6.8 points on .364/.308/.926 shooting splits.
Love isn’t able to offer much if his shot isn’t falling. The gravity, spacing and the offensive hub he can be have slowly dried up over the past few months. The issue for the Cavs is they desperately need those qualities in their rotation.
The Cavs currently don’t have anyone outside of Darius Garland and Mitchell who can be a threat like that off-ball. Cedi Osman is the closest approximation, but he isn’t as good of a shooter and could be shipped out before the deadline. Dean Wade has a reliable outside shot, but isn’t a movement shooter and doesn’t have the connective passing ability of Love.
Love currently being out of the rotation is understandable but not ideal. The Cavs desperately need Love, but not the version with a banged-up thumb.
Darius Garland continues to be exactly what the Cavs need.
Garland is having one of the most impressive under-the-radar seasons in the league. His stats are good, not outrageous. However, his feel for the game remains advanced for someone who just turned 23.
The All-Star snub displayed his feel for the game in the Cavs’ two wins this week. After a poor showing against Miami where the Heat repeatedly went out of their way to attack Garland on the defensive end, he responded with two of his most complete games of the season.
Garland is often a reluctant scorer, but he isn’t afraid to pick up the mantel if that’s what’s needed. He did this on Thursday night. Mitchell was struggling to find his shot at the start of the game so Garland took matters into his own hands. He put up 19 first-half points on 11 shots to go along with 9 assists. Garland continued to keep his foot on the gas after Mitchell’s ejection as he registered a game-high 32 points on 11-19 shooting with 11 assists.
Sunday’s game against Indiana presented a different challenge. Garland orchestrated the offense by allowing everyone else to eat. He ceded on-ball duties at times to Mitchell and Rubio who are both looking to regain their confidence in different ways while also using his on-ball time to get the big men and Okoro involved in the offense. Garland did this while still collecting 24 points on 8-13 shooting.
The Cavs are working like they are because Garland’s buy-in to winning and his ability to facilitate that in any way he can. He’s been a chameleon adapting to the situation around him and providing exactly what’s needed. The Mitchell trade doesn’t work out like it does without this buy-in. He is why this core is poised to compete now and for the foreseeable future. None of this is possible without him.