The Cleveland Cavaliers enter Brooklyn for a slate of two games against the Nets.
In another mini-series, the Cleveland Cavaliers will take on the Brooklyn Nets for two games on the road. The Cavs can all but solidify their first round matchup against the New York Knicks by taking care of business and delivering two losses to the Nets, who stand 2.5 games behind the Knicks for fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
Who: Cleveland Cavaliers (45-28) vs. Brooklyn Nets (39-32)
Where: Barclays Center — Brooklyn, New York
When: 7:30 p.m. EST
TV: Bally Sports Ohio
Spread: Cavs -3
Opposing Blog: Nets Daily
Cavs’ expected starting lineup: Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Isaac Okoro, Lamar Stevens, Evan Mobley
Cavs’ injury report: Jarrett Allen (QUESTIONABLE - eye contusion), Sam Merrill (OUT - G League assignment), Isaiah Mobley (OUT - two-way), Dylan Windler (OUT - G League assignment)
Nets’ expected starting lineup: Spencer Dinwiddie, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Nic Claxton
Net’s injury report: David Duke Jr. (OUT - two-way), Dorian Finney-Smith (QUESTIONABLE - right wrist contusion), Ben Simmons (OUT - left knee/back), Dru Smith (OUT - two-way)
What to watch for:
Back in December, the Cavs lost their only other game to the Nets 125-117. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving both poured in 32 points for Brooklyn while Darius Garland led all scorers with 46 points.
A few things have changed since then, headlined by Irving and Durant being traded to the West Coast. This knocked Brooklyn out of the title race, but delivered a package of assets that can not be overlooked. Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith are a strong enough group to give the Cavaliers trouble this week.
Bridges is the breakout star of the deal, averaging 25.9 points on nearly 50% shooting in his 16 games with the franchise. He’s a blossoming two-way star, already known for his perimeter defense but showing what he is capable of in the scoring department now that he is the focal point of an offense.
Dinwiddie is having a strong start in Brooklyn, as well. Dinwiddie is a premiere shot creator, posting 17.5 points and 8 assists per game since being traded back to the Nets. He offers a dynamic arsenal and has led the attack for Brooklyn as their primary initiator.
Meanwhile, Johnson is averaging a career-high 16.5 points despite shooting just 33.6% from the three-point line. Johnson’s scoring increase is impressive considering his out-of-character shooting slump from deep. The 26-year-old forward is a career 39% three-point shooter but has found a way to be impactful in Brooklyn despite his cold spell.
Interesting depth pieces such as an All-Defensive candidate in Nic Claxton, a microwave scoring sophomore in Cam Thomas, and the always reliable Seth Curry make the Nets a rag-tag team that should not be taken lightly.
The Cavaliers have struggled for consistency from their second unit all season. But if hitting stride at the right time is worth anything, this bench is doing it. Cleveland might be able to rely on the second unit more than they believed with Ricky Rubio and Caris LeVert settling into their roles.
LeVert has been a two-way sparkplug, averaging 18.4 points, 4.8 assists and 2.4 steals on above 50% 3-point shooting over his last five games. He is stringing together encouraging performances on both ends of the floor. LeVert has always been a streaky player but he is ramping up at the right time for Cleveland.
The same goes for Ricky Rubio, who has steadily taken steps to find his groove after missing a year of basketball due to an ACL injury. Returning from a season-ending injury is no easy task and Rubio hasn’t even reached the end of the road, still resting on back-to-backs as part of his recovery.
It’s been a long journey but Rubio is starting to get back into the swing of things. He made his season debut in January and has put together his most productive week of basketball in March. Over his last four games, Rubio is averaging 9.5 points and 4.5 assists in just 21.7 minutes of playing time. The value of having a weathered veteran to lead the second unit in the playoffs can not be understated for this young team.
A taste of the playoffs
Eagerness is growing as the Cavaliers approach their first playoff series since the LeBron era. For much of the young core, this will be their first actual taste of the postseason, excluding the Play-In Tournament.
“I’m fiending for it,” Darius Garland told Cleveland.com when asked about the playoffs last week. Garland put up an electric 34 points in last year’s Play-In game versus the Nets but is ready to prove himself on the biggest stage in basketball. Evan Mobley (21 years old) and Isaac Okoro (23) will also be playing in their first playoff series.
While LeVert, Rubio, Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen have competed in the postseason before, their upcoming journey with the Cavs will hopefully be their first of many. This is a team that is aiming big in the future and this season will serve as an important stepping stone.
But before all of that, they have to wrap up the regular season. It has become unlikely the Nets will be Cleveland's 4-5 counterpart in the first round but a mini-series in Brooklyn is the closest thing to a playoff battle in New York the Cavs are going to get, for now. This is an opportunity to prep for the near future and finalize some winning habits before entering the big stage next month.