Darius Garland’s impressive season has flown under the radar. His willingness to cede primary ballhandling responsibility combined with his ability to play off ball put Donovan Mitchell in a position to have arguably the best season of a Cleveland Cavalier outside of LeBron James. Garland did this while scoring nearly as many points per game as he did last season, but doing so more efficiently and with a better assist to turnover ratio.
More importantly, the Cavs played their best basketball during the regular season with Garland on the floor. They were 5.8 points per 100 possessions better with Garland on compared with him off. This on/off split was more drastic after the All-Star break as the Cavs were 15.4 points better per 100 possessions with him over their final 21 games.
Garland has proven that he can be top tier point guards in the league during the regular season while still having room to grow. Carrying that over to the postseason is the next step.
One of the things that makes playoff basketball difficult is the fact that you’re going against good teams that have had plenty of time to prepare for each player’s strength and weaknesses. Garland is at his best when he’s able to manipulate defenses and get bigs involved. One of the teams that had success forcing Garland to beat them on his own is the New York Knicks. They will likely force him to do that again in the first round.
New York did a good job of defending the Garland-Evan Mobley pick-and-roll. The weak and strongside defenders collapsed as soon as Garland turned the corner cutting off a lob to Mobley and forcing the point guard to finish in traffic which isn’t what he does best.
The Cavs have gone to an empty side pick and roll to counter teams that do this strategy. New York was however ready for it as Toppin lets Lamar Stevens go. Toppin and R.J. Barrett essentially play a two-man zone on the backline causing Garland to finish over length.
It’s much easier to sell out and force Garland to beat a defense inside when Jarrett Allen isn’t on the floor as well. The vertical spacing he provides makes it difficult for teams to completely cut off the basket without giving Garland a free run to the basket when combined with Mobley. This bares out in the numbers. On the season, the Cavs have posted an exceptional 120.5 offensive rating with all three on the floor which is good for the 91st percentile in the league.
The reason why this grouping has been so good is Garland’s off-the-dribble shiftiness and the bigs’ ability to finish at the rim. Both bigs are finishing over 75% of their shots in the restricted area which is outstanding.
The Cavs only played the Knicks once this season with the trio of Garland, Mobley and Allen all available. They outscored their opponent by 19 in the 26 minutes they played together. New York doesn’t have the personnel to completely cut off the paint from the bigs while still forcing Garland into contested looks.
Here’s a good example of how having both bigs on the floor opens up the lane for Garland in a way that isn’t possible when only one is on.
The Cavs run a modified Spain pick-and-roll with Mobley screening Garland’s defender and Allen screening Mobley’s. Obi Toppin is a step slow as he hesitates a second deciding on how to handle Mobley. This extra step keeps him from being able to affect Garland’s shot as Isaiah Hartenstein sells out to keep a lob from going to Allen. This results in a wide-open layup attempt for Garland.
This is what a good defensive possession from New York looks like. Julius Randle is able to cut Garland off from the rim and recover back to Mobley while Jericho Sims does a good job of bouncing back and forth between both bigs.
This ten-footer is something that Garland has knocked down at a high clip. But forcing Garland into a shot he’s knocked down 48.7% of the time this season is a more palatable option than Allen or Mobley having a look in the restricted area.
Even at that, the Knicks don’t have the defenders to completely take away what the Cavs’ front court does best. In the below example, New York ended up with four defenders in the paint, but that doesn’t matter as either Allen or Mobley don’t need much space to get off a high percentage look.
How Garland holds up on the other end will also be interesting. Opponents have tried to hunt Garland defensively all season. The team that had the most success doing this in the regular season was the Miami Heat.
Miami relentlessly tried to get Garland switched onto Jimmy Butler. The Cavs tried to recover to keep the switch from happening. One of the ways to do that was for Garland to hedge and recover, but this often resulted in fouls like the one here. This type of defense resulted in Garland picking up five fouls twice against Miami.
This kind of strategy also requires the four other defenders to be in complete sync. Garland and company successfully rotated out of the switch, but a slight miscommunication from Dean Wade and Allen resulted in Garland trying to close out to Tyler Herro way too hard. This resulted in Garland being out of position on the drive leading to a shooting foul.
New York doesn’t have a guard who poses as big of a mismatch as Butler does. This probably means that the Cavs won’t be desperately trying to scramble out unless he’s switched onto a forward. That said, they, and anyone else the Cavs face in the playoffs, will force Garland to work as much as possible navigating screens and switches on the defensive end.
The playoffs often come down to who can limit their opponent’s strengths while accentuating their weaknesses best. The Knicks will try to do by making Garland uncomfortable on both ends. We’ll see if Garland has what it takes to pass this test.