The Cleveland Cavaliers are gearing up for a playoff run but first, they have to wrap up the regular season. With seven games remaining, a match against the 18-56 Houston Rockets should be one of the easiest for Cleveland. Taking care of business on their home floor could give the Cavs a fighting chance at surpassing the Philadelphia 76ers for third in the Eastern Conference before the season concludes.
Who: Cleveland Cavaliers (47-28) vs. Houston Rockets (18-56)
Where: Rocket Mortage Fieldhouse, Cleveland, OH
When: 6 p.m. EST
TV: Bally Sports Ohio, NBA League Pass
Spread: Cleveland -14 (via Draft Kings)
Opposing Blog: The Dream Shake
Cavs’ expected starting lineup: Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Isaac Okoro, Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen
Cavs’ injury report: Raul Neto (QUESTIONABLE - hamstring)
Rockets expected starting lineup: Kevin Porter Jr., Jalen Green, Kenyon Martin Jr., Jabari Smith Jr., Aperen Sengun
Rockets injury report: Jae’Sean Tate (OUT - illness)
What to watch for
Isaac Okoro’s confidence boost
Isaac Okoro emerged as a hero the last time the Cavs played basketball. It was Okoro’s last-second three-pointer that crushed hearts in Brooklyn, giving Cleveland a 116-114 victory and making Ice everyone’s favorite Cavalier for the night.
ISAAC. OKORO. NEVER MISSED A GAME WINNING SHOT IN THE NBA.@isaacokoro303 | #LetEmKnow pic.twitter.com/QKotejUlXI— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) March 24, 2023
This heroic moment was a long time coming for Okoro, who has worked relentlessly to become a two-way threat for the team. He is shooting 44.1% from deep since January after a horrific 24.6% shooting clip to start the season. This turnaround had already raised Okoro’s confidence but a game-winning three could help boost him to the next level.
It is no secret Okoro will be at the center of most opponents’ game plans in the playoffs. An improved, yet still limited shooter, Okoro will be forced to take and make shots from the corner this postseason. A brief shooting slump could drive Okoro straight to the bench in a series where every possession matters.
Okoro is already one of the strongest perimeter defenders in the NBA. The challenge has always been putting together the complete package to avoid being a detriment on the other end of the floor. Take a look at where Okoro places on this graph as an impactful defender but a low-tier offensive contributor (bottom, center-right).
A look at which Eastern Conference off-ball guard/wings are providing the most impact.— BBall Index (@The_BBall_Index) March 7, 2023
⬆️Better offensive impact
➡️Better defensive impact
-Filtered down to guard/wings in our off-ball roles pic.twitter.com/sCFrhrVOoq
Confidence is everything, even for the best 3-point shooters in the world. For Okoro, a late-season game-winner could give him enough juice to walk into the playoffs with deadly intention from deep. This string of confidence can continue with another game to line up his shots and build momentum against Houston.
Evan Mobley’s offensive development
There is another proven defender on the Cavaliers who has been steadily building confidence on the offensive end — and that would be Evan Mobley. A delight to Cavs fans and a terror to the rest of the NBA, Mobley has been flashing the superstar upside as a threat to stop buckets on one end and deliver them on the other.
Mobley recorded 26 points and 16 rebounds on 11-18 shooting against Brooklyn. He’s becoming an impossible player to contain, springing to the boards for offensive putbacks and utilizing his freakish length to sink post-hooks over helpless defenders.
Throw it down, EV4!@evanmobley | #LetEmKnow pic.twitter.com/WjOanieVLT— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) March 24, 2023
He has been on a tear since January, posting an average of 18.7 points and 9.1 rebounds on 54.7% shooting. This all comes with All-Defensive caliber performances on the defensive end that makes Mobley a luxury to have on both sides of the ball for Cleveland.
Mobley played just 33 minutes in his last game against Houston, putting up a quick 21 points and 10 rebounds in an efficient beatdown of the Rockets. Facing the franchise that chose Jalen Green over him will always be personal and Mobley has every reason to give Houston another reminder tonight of what they missed out on.
Finishing the season strong
The entire city of Cleveland is buzzing for playoff basketball. The players themselves are fiending for it. So will the Cavs treat a somewhat meaningless game against the second-worst team in the NBA with the same level of intensity and focus as they should?
Getting up for these games is not always easy. The Cavaliers have occasionally played down to their opponents in these scenarios, such as their double-digit loss to the Golden State Warriors in January or their 17-point loss to Atlanta last month.
Every team has “bad” losses. All this comes in a wildly successful season where the team is on pace for 50+ wins. Finishing fourth in the East is an incredible achievement but the franchise should be feeling like they could have won even more games. Cleaning up these errors and playing every game at high intensity is the difference between being a good and great team in the future.
While the Cavs have all but clinched homecourt advantage in the first round and are doomed to face Boston or Milwaukee before the Conference Finals regardless, the final weeks of the season should matter to them. The Cavs are 8-2 over their last 10 games, building momentum at the perfect time to enter the playoffs. An easy opportunity against a tanking team should not be squandered.