Game Night Observations: A Lot Of Positives In A Tough Loss

Game Night Observations: A lot of positives in a tough loss

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 Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and

Not all losses in the NBA are created equal.

Sure, at the end of the day, a loss is a loss, and they all count the same in the loss column. But Wednesday night’s 115-114 to the Memphis Grizzlies felt a little bit different.

The Cavaliers, without All-Star point guard Donovan Mitchell, played one of their best games of the season against a team that is considered to be a legitimate contender to win the NBA Finals. At the end of the night, it wasn’t enough, but it was still an impressive effort.

Darius Garland was terrific with a team-high 24 points, Caris LeVert had 23 of his own, Isaac Okoro was perfect from the field on his way to a season-high 17 points, and Evan Mobley played one of the best defensive games of his career.
It was a game that the Cavaliers can look back at feeling they should have one, but also a game they can look back and feel good about the way they played, too. The way the game ended should be something that’s looked back at as a learning experience.

The end

The Cavaliers held a 114-113 lead over Memphis and had the ball with 27.3 remaining in regulation after Jaren Jackson Jr. blocked Garland’s shot out of bounds. The Cavaliers took one of their two remaining timeouts to set up a play with a short shot clock.

After the timeout, the Cavs wouldn’t have had the opportunity to put the game away, but they would have had the chance to extend their lead and significantly increase their chance of winning. Instead, Okoro couldn’t get the ball inbounded, leading to a five-second violation. That would be the 19th and final turnover of the night for the Cavs.

Memphis scored on a put-back by center Steven Adams to take a 115-114 after point guard Ja Morant missed a layup.

The Cavs elected not to take a timeout after the basket, and ultimately saw Garland’s 3-pointer just before the buzzer swatted away by Memphis’ Dillion Brooks.

After fighting back from down by 19 points, the Cavs put forth about as bad of a 27-second stretch as they could have. In that situation, the Cavs have to be able to at least get the ball in from the baseline after the timeout and create something of substance offensively on the final possession.

Sometimes the ball goes in the basket and sometimes it doesn’t. Losing that game because Memphis was able to make a shot when it counted and the Cavs couldn’t is a totally acceptable outcome. Being unable to get the ball anywhere near the rim – especially with a timeout still remaining to use – on the final two possessions is not.

The good stuff

There’s a lot here, but it’s worth starting with the play of Mobley. So often it’s been talked about what he hasn’t yet become in just his second NBA season. Because the 21-year-old drew comparisons to Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan right away in the NBA due to his extremely high potential. Mobley is “only” averaging 14.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game this year, which has meant to too many that he hasn’t been good. Sure, he hasn’t taken quite the leap that many people expected offensively, but he is already one of the best defenders in the world.

The defense was on display on Wednesday night. In a game that featured  the perceived leader for Defensive Player of the Year in Memphis’ Jackson Jr., Mobley was the best defender on the floor, partially due to Jackson Jr. playing only 28 minutes as a result of foul trouble.

In the fourth quarter, Mobley was everywhere on both ends of the floor. He finished with 10 of his 18 points in the period with a pair of blocks and a number of other shots altered. He’s able to do stuff that a guy at his position shouldn’t be able to do in his second season.

It’s becoming clear that Mobley’s floor as a defender right now is a spot on the All-Defense team and his ceiling is a guy that could win multiple Defensive Player of the Year trophies.

One of the other bright spots on Wednesday was the play of Okoro. He scored a season-high 17 points on a perfect 6-of-6 from the floor and 4-of-4 from beyond 3-point range. There’s been quite a bit of chatter about the Cavaliers needing to upgrade the small forward position if they’re going to be real contenders this year. That very well may be true, but it should be mentioned how much Okoro has improved throughout the season, too.

Defensively, Okoro is above average and a significant reason why the Cavaliers are one of the best defensive units in the NBA. The other end of the floor has been a question mark throughout the entirety of his career, but there are signs that he’s starting to figure things out.

So much was made of the cold start to the season that Okoro had when he missed his first 12 3-pointers of the year. Opposing teams were refusing to guard him and he looked like a player that had been sapped of much of his confidence. It was at a point where it was difficult to justify playing time for him while he was averaging just 2.2 points per game over the first 12 games of the season.

Since then, Okoro has really picked his game up. While his overall numbers are still weighed down by his putrid start, Okoro has made 39.5% of his 3-pointers since November 11, including 62.5% since the calendar flipped to 2023.

He’s never going to be a star, and he’s never going to be a high volume player, but the player that Okoro has been for the better part of this season is certainly good enough to justify being in the starting lineup for the rest of the season and playing between 25 and 30 minutes per night.

A good sign

It’s really tough for an NBA to be successful over a long stretch of time when it is missing its best player. Right now, the absence of Mitchell means the Cavs are missing there. If he’s out for a long period of time, the Cavs are likely going to spend time struggling.

When that player is out for a game or two, though, it’s a great sign when the rest of the team is able to step up the way that the Cavs did on Wednesday. No, they didn’t win, and no one should be throwing parades for losses. But the Cavs did a lot of good things on Wednesday night despite having a really bad final 27 seconds of the game. Those good things shouldn’t be forgotten because of the ending.