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What we learned about the Cleveland Cavaliers this week: March 13 - 19

Evan Mobley’s defense has allowed the Cavs to survive without Jarrett Allen

Photo by Lauren Bacho/NBAE via Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers won two of their three games this week. The one loss however was to the Philadelphia 76ers which likely puts getting the third seed out of the question. Here’s what we learned this week.

The Cavs are winning the possession battle

Cleveland played well in all three games this week, but did so in very different fashions.

The Cavs posted a good offensive rating of 120.5 despite connecting on 3-17 threes before both teams pulled their starters in their game with the Washington Wizards. Against Philadelphia, they were able to stay relevant despite the Sixers shooting the cover off the ball and getting to the line whenever they wanted to. The constant throughout these games was protecting the ball and forcing turnovers.

Since the beginning of March, only 11.6% of their offensive possessions end in a giveaway (3rd best in the league) while a league leading 19.8% of defensive possessions do. For context, league average for turnover percentage this month is 13.6%.

Decisively winning the turnover battle can cover up for many shortcomings as seen this week.

Ricky Rubio could be turning the corner

Rubio has had a tough time reacclimating since returning from his ACL injury. He understandably hasn’t looked like the same player he was last season which has limited his overall effectiveness.

His performance in March has been a step in the right direction. This month, Rubio is averaging 6.8 points and 3.4 assists on .477/.333/.778 shooting in 18 minutes. In his last four contests, the backup point guard is averaging 9.5 points on 50% shooting with 4.5 assists per game.

More importantly, the impact stats have been showing back up. The Cavs have outscored opponents by 11.1 points per 100 possessions in March with Rubio on the floor.

Rubio still physically doesn’t quite look completely back, but his play has been rising as J.B. Bickerstaff has tinkered with the rotations. Playing more minutes alongside Cedi Osman and Lamar Stevens in place of Dean Wade, who has been in terrible funk recently, has allowed Rubio to better do what he does best.

Whether the Cavs are able to make a deep playoff run will come down to the play of their core four. But, having guys like Rubio and Caris LeVert continue the level of play they’ve shown recently will make a big difference along the margins.

Evan Mobley’s availability makes him so impactful defensively

Mobley continues to play like one of the best defenders in the league. His four blocks against the Wizards, including his ridiculous block against Kyle Kuzma, are what makes the highlight reals. However, Mobley’s ability to contest at the rim without fouling is what sets him apart. This is especially important when Jarrett Allen isn’t available and there’s not much depth in the front court.

The second-year big has not picked up more than three fouls in the four full games he’s played since Allen’s eye contusion. This includes picking up only two fouls against Joel Embiid who is notorious for getting opposing big men in foul trouble.

During this four game stretch, he’s registered the second highest block percentage in the league (2.8%) while fouling on only 2.9% of defensive possessions which is better than his already impressive season average of 3.3%. This is all while contesting 13.8 shots per game during this stretch which is good for third in the league.

The offense missed Allen against the Sixers

Allen’s impact on the offensive end was felt in Wednesday’s loss. Philadelphia was able to put a halt to Cleveland’s offense when they were able to put Embiid on Isaac Okoro and Lamar Stevens. This allowed Embiid to act as a free safety which clogged up the paint making it difficult for Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland to get anything inside.

Both Stevens and Okoro did their best to counter this by aggressively shooting and cutting off-ball. But, that is something the defense is going to live with when the alternative is Mitchell and Garland getting in the paint.

This resulted with the Cavs playing much of the second half with LeVert and Osman with Mobley as the only big. This forced Embiid to guard Mobley and not play the free safety role which opened the offense back up. The downside was this lineup got punished on the defensive glass as Philadelphia was able to collect 43.2% of their missed shots which included 5 offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter.

Being able to have a center guard Okoro while acting as a free safety isn’t something opponents are able to do as effectively with Allen and Mobley in the lineup. Mobley has progressed to the point where you likely can’t get away with putting someone like Tobias Harris on him. That said, it’s worth keeping an eye on this as teams might try to do this against the Cavs at some point in the postseason.

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