Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and thelandondemand.com. You can find him on Twitter at @RealDCunningham.
The Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Washington Wizards 117-94 on Friday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
There are times when one team knows it is better than its opponent and decides early on in the game that the result isn’t going to be in doubt for very long.
That was the mentality for the Cavs on Friday night against Washington. These two teams are in very different places – with Cleveland playing for home court advantage in the playoffs and the Wizards fighting just to keep their NBA Play-In Tournament hopes alive – and it could not have been more evident from the start.
The Cavs looked motivated, like they had a simple task to accomplish, and made sure there was little doubt it would get done. At times, it seemed as if the Wizards were fine to oblige with that.
There was a point during the third quarter in which the Wizards were able to cut Cleveland’s lead down to just seven points near the end of the period, but within the first two minutes of the fourth quarter the Cavs pushed that lead back up to 16 points.
This was an instance of the Cavs simply taking care of business. Even if the team could have been better in the third quarter, it’s hard to complain about the overall effort.
Friday night Darius Garland led the way with 24 points and nine assists, Donovan Mitchell had 20 points, and Evan Mobley had 20 points, eight rebounds, and four blocks. There was nothing spectacular about the performance, but rather just a routine night. That speaks not only to the maturity of a team not needing to have someone carry a heavy load on a night that could have easily been overlooked, but also how good some of the roster is that this is seen as normal.Rubio’s growth
When the Cavs signed point guard Ricky Rubio to a contract last summer, they knew he wouldn’t be back on the floor until the calendar flipped to 2023. Even then, Rubio would have to work his way back to form following the second torn ACL in his left knee of his career.
To date, it’s easy to look at Rubio’s build up to this point as a preseason for him, of sorts. Obviously, the games are meaningful, but with Rubio it’s all about building towards the postseason, so he can be where he needs to be when those games arrive.
Rubio may not yet be where he will be, but he certainly has improved since making his season debut on January 12 in Portland.
“Confidence is super high,” Garland said of Rubio’s recent play. “He's running the offense super smooth. He's telling people where to go. I mean he's just being super aggressive. He's getting to that one leg fader that he always gets to, so that's another reason I could tell that he's almost back healthy.”
Over the last week, there’s been a clear uptick in the level of aggressiveness by Rubio. In his last five games, he’s attempted at least seven field goals in four of them. In Rubio’s first 19 games this season, there had only been three in which he had attempted seven or more shots. Rubio’s been able to get to his comfort spots on the floor more frequently. That type of play significantly raises the level of the bench.
It should come as no surprise that the player Rubio has spent the most time with on the floor in the month of March is Caris LeVert. Those two have played 126 minutes together so far during the month and in that time the Cavs have outscored their opponents by 38 points. During that stretch, both players have been really good, but Rubio’s improved game has really jumped off the page and may just be the catalyst the Cavs need for an improved bench.A minor milestone
With the win on Friday night the Cavaliers won for the 45th
time this season, officially surpassing last year’s total of 44.
This had become a formality some time ago, but it doesn’t make it a less impressive feat for this franchise. The team’s 45th
win pushed this group to the winningest Cavaliers team that doesn’t feature LeBron James since 1997-98. The only regular member of Cleveland’s starting lineup that had been born when that season was completed is Mitchell.
With nine games remaining in the regular season, this year’s version of the Cavs has a very legitimate chance to become the first team sans-James since the 1992-93 season to win 50 or more games. The only players on the roster that were born at that point are Danny Green, Robin Lopez, Ricky Rubio, and Raul Neto. That’s how long it’s been.
“Not to be dismissive, but we’re looking at something that’s right in front of us at this point,” Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “There’s nine games left, so there’s so much more that you can see and we’re always looking at how we can get better even in this short amount of time, so that’s where our focus is. We’ll wait until the season’s over and that’s when you have an opportunity to look back and think of the successes you’ve had and the failures you’ve had and how those failures will make you better.”
Winning the 45th
game of the season isn’t some grand accomplishment. It’s not as if Friday night will go down as some historical night that will be celebrated for years to come. But it does serve as a reminder of not only what this franchise has historically been without James on the roster, but also of the growth from last year to this year.
Adding a player of Mitchell’s caliber should have meant that the Cavaliers were better in theory. They still needed to go out and prove it on the floor, and this serves as a minor milestone that proves the year as a success.