Cavs All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen. Photo via Cavs.com
Game Night Observations: Return of the defense and taking it on the road
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Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and thelandondemand.com
The Cavaliers have spent the whole season on a streak of sorts.
First, they won eight straight games after dropping a game on opening night against Toronto. Then, they dropped five straight, leading to questions about if the team had overachieved early on. The defensive identity that the team spent much of the last 14 months building disappeared for a 10-day stretch.
The team was the worst defensive unit in the NBA during that stretch, which culminated in a loss in Milwaukee against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.
Now, after Wednesday night’s 114-96 win over Portland, the Cavs head back to Milwaukee looking like the team that they were during the good times, and the team that so many expected them to be.
So, what’s changed since that four-game losing streak?
“Defensive identity definitely changed over this last week,” Cavs All-Star point guard Darius Garland said after his 24-point, 12-assist performance. “I think we started to get back to it. I think we started to play more physical and getting more stops on the defensive end which is leading to offense.”
Garland isn’t wrong. In the stretch in which the Cavaliers lost five straight games, the team was allowing an NBA-worst 122 points per 100 possessions. In the last four games, the Cavaliers have the third-best defense in the NBA, allowing just 102 points per 100 possessions. In that stretch they’ve got the second-best net rating in all of the league, outscoring opponents by 16.5 points per 100 possessions.
It's not that the Cavs are just getting by. They’re dominating teams, and they’re doing it on both ends of the floor.
One reason, that can be pointed to, as Donovan Mitchell literally did in his postgame media availability: Jarrett Allen.
“We got this guy back,” Mitchell said pointing next to him at Allen. “I think there’s always going to be trials and tribulations. Going to be positives and negatives. Went on an eight-game winning streak and then a five-game losing streak and now a four-game (winning) streak. There’s always going to be highs and lows. I want to say we’re a different team, outside of adding J.A. We’re a different team mentally coming into Milwaukee, but also understanding that we have room to improve as well. I think there’s a confidence about us.”
On nights when Allen fills up the stat sheet – as he did Wednesday with 24 points and 13 rebounds – it’s easy to see the impact he has on the game. On nights that Allen doesn’t fill up the stat sheet, it’s still easy to see how impactful he is. Allen is the lynchpin of what the Cavs do defensively, and, along with Mitchell – who had a game-high 34 points Wednesday – he’s half of the NBA’s best pick-and-roll duo.
Since he’s returned from his ankle injury – and the illness that coincided with it – the Cavs have been great. He won’t put up the big numbers that can be seen from Mitchell and Garland, but he’s every bit as important to this Cavs squad. Allen being on the floor transforms the Cavs into one of the best defensive units in the NBA, which is something that wasn’t there during the losing streak.
“I think we have a better understanding of what we need to do to be the team that we want to be,” Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said on Wednesday night. “And again, that was in a spell where we were too much free flowing. And, playing at a tempo that we're not comfortable at, that doesn't suit us.”
Dean Wade return, Kevin Love out
On Wednesday night the Cavaliers did welcome back forward Dean Wade to the floor. Wade had missed the last six games while dealing with a knee ailment.
In his return, Wade had a reserve role for the Cavs and scored just four points in 18 minutes. For his first game back, it wasn’t a bad showing. He wasn’t necessarily asked to do much, but he didn’t pass up open looks either. He just wasn’t set up in position to have many cracks at it.
With Wade back, the team did opt to continue to start Lamar Stevens at the small forward position. The Cavs have done that throughout the four-game winning streak, but at some point, could insert Wade into the starting lineup in that spot. Until that happens, though, Stevens have contributed at a solid level, scoring in double figures in four of his last six games.
While Wade was back in the rotation for the Cavs, they weren’t complete. Swingman Caris LeVert missed his second consecutive game with an ankle injury, and sixth man Kevin Love missed the game as well.
Love suffered a hairline fracture to his right thumb last Friday against Charlotte. He missed the team’s game against Miami but did play on Monday night against Atlanta. While he was listed on the injury report with the thumb injury, Bickerstaff said before the game that Love was a little bit under the weather in addition to the thumb injury, thus keeping him out of the game on Wednesday.
Home vs. Road
After taking care of business at home on Wednesday night, the Cavaliers are now 8-1 inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on the season. The team’s only loss at home this year came against the Minnesota Timberwolves, in what was a bit of a schedule loss. Other than that, the Cavs have dominated teams in Cleveland.
In the nine home games the Cavs have played, they’ve outscored opponents by 10.1 points per 100 possessions. That’s the second-best mark in the NBA, trailing only the Phoenix Suns.
The 8-1 home record does mean that the team is just 4-5 on the road to start the season, though. Now, the Cavs head on the road for a quick three-game road trip, with stops in Milwaukee, Detroit, and Toronto.
“I think we'll be fine,” Bickerstaff said of playing on the road. “Again, you go back to some of those road games, majority of them we had leads in fourth quarters. And it was a matter of us figuring out how to close. So I think we're learning. I think we're better now closing. I think we'll give ourselves a chance because of it.”