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From lovable underdog to unforgiving bully: How the Cavs got here

From lovable underdog to unforgiving bully: How the Cavs got here

If you haven’t heard by now, you will soon: the Cleveland Cavaliers are coming for you.

Seemingly in the blink of an eye, the wine-and-golders have gone from lovable underdogs to unforgiving bullies. Through 30 games, over one-third of the way into the 2021-22 campaign, the Cavs boast an 18-12 record — probably the most misleading in the NBA, an absolute undersell — with one of the top average margins of victory in the league.

Using cliches and “broken-record coach speak” as J.B. Bickerstaff lightheartedly says before answering our repetitive comments of praise, you can’t single out anyone as the sole reason for such a dramatic turnaround. Everyone has collectively bought in — from the returning players who “took a lot of ass whoopings” to the new ones who came in looking to advance a process.

Pun definitely intended, these Cavs will let you know, and fast. Jumping out to double-digit leads quickly. Punching you square in the mouth to close first halves. Putting you on the wrong end of the highlight reel. Not only do they feel like they belong, they expect to win. 

No matter who they’re up against. No matter who’s on the floor for them. No matter the situation.

“It’s giving us confidence just knowing we can beat some of the best teams in this league. I think we’re one of ‘em, to be honest with you,” Darius Garland said after a win over the Chicago Bulls last week. “We’ve just got to bring that confidence, bring that intensity every game. Just stay with it, just keep being us. Bring the scrap every night, listen to the coaching staff and keep playing Cavaliers basketball.”

There were times in the past few years when Cleveland looked like it began to put things together... in stretches. But an injury here, a setback there, an interruption, a roster change — it never sustained. At this point, we’ve gotten a two-month sample size of this version of the team. It fights with the same vigor, the same self-belief and the same grit on a nightly basis.

“It’s about those guys in the locker room,” Bickerstaff said. “From day one — go back to September, they showed up the day after Labor Day — they were in the gym and working, and were committed to one another. And then their personalities, they genuinely all get along, they genuinely all like each other. They fight for each other. They support each other. 

“I go home and I watch the games over, and I spend so much time just watching our bench. There’s body after body after body that’s up celebrating, cheering, [and] guys that don’t even sit down during the game. That’s what does it, and it’s that chemistry the guys have formed. They love to compete. These games, even games we’ve lost, they’ve laid it out there. We’ve had leads versus really good teams because of the spirit that those guys have played with... Guys being committed to what you're trying to do, and committed to one another is the most important thing that you can have. And I think that's where we've seen the biggest leap.”

Combine that consistent effort with otherworldly versatility, skill and attitude, and you’ve got the recipe for a unique, killer concoction. 

As muttered recently on a radio hit in Cleveland, it’s nearly impossible to cover everything top to bottom in regards to what’s going right for this team. But we’ll give it a try.

Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley (and Lauri Markkanen)

Coming into the season, everybody wondered how the duo of Allen and Mobley would coexist on the floor. The thought of Markkanen sharing the floor with both never crossed anybody’s mind. And yet, here we are, talking about Tall Ball as the league's newest craze that’s thrown nearly every opponent for a loop.

Bickerstaff decided at the beginning of the season that he had to find a way to put his best players on the floor all at once, and for his team, that was through size and skill. We’re seeing Cleveland reap the benefits of that on a nightly basis. It all starts on the defensive end. 

You’re seeing Allen and Mobley deny those bold enough to enter their territory. Allen is the anchor in the middle, timing his head-on challenges to near perfection, while Mobley is the weak-side insurance policy waiting to reject all comers who’d initially believed there was a path to an easy bucket. The rookie covers some insane ground, by the way, with his long strides allowing for quick recovery if he ever overcommits or has to be the last line of defense at a certain spot. He’s also insanely intelligent, keeping the ball in play whenever he blocks shots (or just blatantly ripping it out of somebody’s hands).

The funny part is that the teams strategizing to get Allen and Mobley on perimeter switches don’t fully comprehend that those two are hoping for such a plan. They are not going to be left in the dust in space, and no matter which one is tasked with defending a quicker guard, the other will have his back down low. The rotations are just incredibly crisp. Of the duos in the NBA that have played at least 500 minutes, the Allen-Mobley pairing is allowing just 95.9 points per 100 possessions. That is the top Defensive Rating in the entire league, if you’re keeping count.

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Also, their defensive prowess allows the Cavs’ perimeter defenders to put more pressure on the ball and gamble more due to the protection behind them. Which brings us to the third leg of the triumvirate…

Let’s give credit to the unheralded contributions from Markkanen on this end of the floor too. Stride for stride, the Finnish 7-footer has been able to shuffle his feet laterally to contain his assignments rather successfully. He’s not fouling, he’s contesting the third-most shots on the team on average (8.3) and he’s utilizing his length to make his man either give up the ball or force a shot attempt over a trio of towers. By no means is he the primary guy to highlight individually; however, considering past questions of how Markkanen would handle playing the 3 on the defensive side of the ball, the returns have been more than acceptable, particularly with how he’s positioned himself. He’s an integral part of this Cavs' frontcourt.

DG the PG

Where do you even start with Darius Garland? 

Is it the way he picks his spots? How quickly he’s processing his reads? His trickery with lobs? The fact that he's firing up shots without hesitation?

No matter which area of his game pops out to you, it’s plain and obvious that Garland is making that all-too-familiar third-year jump from good to great. He’s in complete control of the game with the ball in his hands, becoming the conductor of the (not-so) soothing Cavs symphony. 

The 21-year-old is so agile and shifty that he has his defenders constantly asking for help, and what happens after that is up to him. He has shown a tendency to disguise the floater he used so often last year, which allows the aforementioned Allen and Mobley to capitalize with thunderous throwdowns. They are Garland’s top two targets on the offensive end by and large, and Allen has a 62.8% field-goal percentage off those connections.

With his dribble penetration drawing more and more attention, opportunities are opening up for others. Garland puts a lot of heat on his pocket passes and quick shovel feeds, but his teammates are beginning to understand when and where to expect the ball, which has allowed for this Cleveland offense to thrive. 

He’ll also get his own shot going when he sees an opportunity, and those attempts are coming at all three levels of the floor. Not many point guards around the league can match his production. According to Basketball-Reference, Garland’s shooting percentages across the board are as follows: 63.2% from 0-to-3 feet, 46.3% from 3-to-10 feet, 49.2% from 10-to-16 feet, 52.6% from 16 feet to the three-point line and 38.9% from beyond the arc.

Garland has been able to play off the ball as well, with Ricky Rubio as a ball-handler. He’s been able to catch the opposition sleeping on a number of cuts, and is making them pay as a catch-shooter on the outside to boot. He’s got synergy with the bigs coming off dribble handoffs. It’s just all clicking for him right now. (Spoiler Alert: Our own Nekias Duncan will have more on Garland in the future.)

Veterans Matter

Without Rubio, who knows if Garland reaches this level of success? The Spanish guard has been a mentor and a maestro in his own right for this young team. As adamantly stated by several Cavs, he is a starting point guard in the NBA, yet he is propelling a uniquely productive bench alongside Kevin Love. 

Both are buying what Cleveland is selling, and have become a crucial part of not only the development of this inexperienced bunch, but also the contributions toward its winning ways. The inherent unselfishness has permeated throughout, which is allowing for the production we’ve seen.

Rubio has been the Cavs’ iron man, having played all 30 games and making an impact in whatever way is working that night — turning the corner, shooting the basketball at a 34% perimeter clip, pushing the offense in transition. In addition to all of this, he recently surpassed the 5,000-assist mark, backing up the importance of moving the ball. It was the team's No. 1 goal coming into the campaign, and thanks to Rubio’s IQ, there’s been a domino effect.

Love has rediscovered the fun of “the chase” with Cleveland, and it’s shown with his performances. As a super-sub this season playing a tad under 20 minutes per night, the former All-Star is averaging 12.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per contest, while nailing 41.2% of his triple tries. Albeit on a low amount of attempts, Love is leading the NBA at 96.4% from the free-throw line.

These two deserve a boatload of credit for the sacrifices they’ve made knowing where they’re at in their respective careers, and the fact that they’ve embraced the roles fully demonstrates their professionalism.

Those are the vets who see consistent playing time. There’s another who doesn’t receive quite as much love because his impact is not as obvious, and that’s Ed Davis. Bickerstaff went to bat for the seasoned big man to occupy Cleveland’s final roster spot for locker-room and mentorship purposes, and thus far, it’s been a home run. Davis knows why he’s here, and he’s more than willing to hold up his end of the bargain. And in cases where Allen and/or Mobley aren’t available, he’s able to slot in and do his job. 

The “others” that really aren’t the others

It’s unfortunate that Isaac Okoro just got placed into the NBA’s health-and-safety protocols, because he is the backbone of the Cavs’ perimeter defense. He’s constantly taking on the opponents’ toughest offensive players, chasing guys all around the half-court to deny them the ball, defeating screens to stick on them when the ball is in their hands and forcing them into awkward positions.

Offensively, Okoro is beginning to find his footing from the corner. It’s not just the three-point shot — where 61.6% of his perimeter tries have come from — it’s the way he’s making defenses pay when they close-out too hard. He’s putting the ball on the floor, going into contact and, in some cases (as seen against Houston), bruising the rim. Okoro’s got a hell of a layup package too, and in transition, he’s a load to handle.

Cedi Osman’s hot start to the season has tailed off a bit; however, with a defined role as a part of the second unit, you can see how relaxed he’s playing. Defensively, he’s been swiping away steal after steal, and in the open floor, he’s been in attack mode. He’s also hoisting threes on the move and standstill like we’ve never witnessed before. There is no lack of confidence there.

Maybe the most underappreciated player the Cavs have is Dean Wade, who, whether in the starting lineup playing 30 minutes or with the reserves in garbage time, constantly brings the same effort on both ends no matter the circumstance. He’s able to stretch the floor as a long-range sniper, and he is Bickerstaff’s sneakiest contingency plan on the defensive end. 

Speaking of which, Lamar Stevens is the man Cleveland goes to when it needs a shot in the arm. He’s got a bulky frame and matches up well 1-through-4. There have been numerous occasions when the team has gone to him and found the energy it needed from only his presence on the floor. He won’t take many shots, but he’ll prevent quite a few.

The core of what makes the Cavs such a dangerous team is their box-score balance. Every night, you’ll see six or seven players in double figures, assist figures in the mid-to-high 20s and 30s and modest (or poor) opponent field-goal percentages.

In every sense of the word, Cleveland is playing team ball. The NBA challenged the organization with eight out of 11 on the road to begin the season — including a grueling West Coast trip — and the wine-and-gold passed that test with flying colors. (They’re one of the best away teams in the league at 9-5.) Now, whenever the Cavs are playing a team that isn’t a playoff contender, they’re demoralizing them and steamrolling them. The tough love has paid off in a major way.

No, they’re not a finished product. They're even missing their leading scorer from a season ago (here's to hoping for a speedy recovery for Collin Sexton). They’re not close. There haven't been nearly enough 48-minute games, and the hunt for a “signature win” is still on.

With that said, the Cavs have consistently brought it every single night, and teams that haven’t taken notice are in for a hard, painful lesson once that ball tips off.

The warning sign is right in front of them: Beware of the Junkyard Dogs.

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