When the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Brooklyn Nets on Monday, it was a monumental win for the team. It was their 27th win of the season, surpassing their expected win total the oddsmakers at Vegas set for them. Sure, if you were to ask head coach J.B. Bickerstaff or any of the players about it, they'd downplay it as just another day in the office. But, considering that nearly everyone was so low on the Cavaliers, it should be something worth celebrating.
Right now, Cleveland is on pace to win roughly 50 games this season, which blows every preconceived notion about them away. On the week the Cavaliers went 2-1 and a lot of that is thanks, in part, to Darius Garland ascending towards becoming a top ten player at his position. Garland's play has been exemplary and has put him into the All-Star conversation with less than a month to go until Cleveland hosts the festivities.
But, will it be enough to get him there? Or will he burn out as the Cavaliers face more playoff-caliber matchups down the stretch of the season? It might be tough with Lauri Markkanen sidelined with likely a high ankle sprain. Today we'll be breaking that down, and more, in the latest iteration of key takeaways from this week of Cleveland basketball.
Can Darius Garland be an All-Star for the Cavaliers this February?
A lot of people expected a strong season from Darius Garland this year, but nothing quite like this. As mentioned at the top, Garland has been without a doubt the most important player for Cleveland all season long. No, not their best player – those honors go to Evan Mobley. But, without Garland, Mobley wouldn't already be in that rarified of air already. Sure, it's only Mobley's rookie season and there's still so much room for him to grow. But, Mobley is also a big man and despite some truly unique traits, he needs Garland in order to make his offensive game flow properly.
But, since the start of the new calendar year, Garland has been nuclear for the Cavaliers. In ten games played, Garland has averaged 20.7 points and 10.6 assists per game all while Cleveland has gone 7-3. Garland also won Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors for Week 13, averaging 20.5 points, 12.8 assists per game all while guiding the Cavaliers to a 4-0 record.
Cleveland point guard Darius Garland has been more or less locked into ninth place for NBA All-Star fan voting for Eastern Conference guards.
Even after Cleveland lost Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio for the season, they've been able to rely on Garland to step up and fill the void left by them. Without any doubt, he's worthy of All-Star consideration. Unfortunately, fans across the league don't feel that way as Garland has been deadlocked into ninth place for Eastern Conference All-Star voting. Thankfully, that's just for the starting five in each respective conference. For what it's worth, Garland thinks he has what it takes to represent the Cavaliers in Cleveland during Sunday's main event.
"Hell yeah," said Garland on Friday. "I think I'm an All-Star."
Garland also shared that across the league, superstars like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and LeBron James have all reached out to him, congratulating him on his stellar play. Again, that's high praise and should further cement his case. But, based on how returns for fan voting has gone, it seems highly unlikely that Garland will be named a starter for the All-Star game. Instead, it's going to be up to coaches across the league to determine Garland's All-Star fate. With how well he's played this year Garland might have a shot, especially considering rival coaches get to gameplan for him on a day-to-day basis.
Unfortunately, that still might not be enough for Garland. Sure, some of the fan votes for Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose is purely that: fandom. But, when it comes to the likes of Zach LaVine, James Harden, LaMelo Ball and Fred VanVleet, like Garland they all have legitimate cases. Sure, even if you removed Chicago's DeMar DeRozan, who is a forward, from the list, you're still hard-pressed to find a spot for Garland in the final All-Star shuffle.
That's just the unfortunate reality of the situation for Garland and the Cavaliers. By all accounts, he's been an All-Star for the Cleveland and if there was enough roster space, he would be rewarded for it. Unfortunately, it just doesn't seem likely given everything else at play. So, in spirit Garland is an All-Star this season. Sure, that's disappointing but it doesn't mean he still cannot get his game on and go play.
Despite losing to the Bulls on Wednesday, the Cavaliers got a great playoff-caliber test while in Chicago.
This week had great playoff-caliber tests for the Cavaliers. Some they passed, many they failed
When looking at the Cavaliers' overall schedule this week, a docket of the Brooklyn Nets, the Chicago Bulls and the Oklahoma City Thunder doesn't seem like much. But, it's actually quite the contrary. Playing Brooklyn and Chicago only days apart was a great opportunity for Cleveland to test their mettle against some of the best in the Eastern Conference. Against the Thunder, meanwhile, presented a chance for the Cavaliers to play an opponent only a week apart.
The first time out in Oklahoma City, Cleveland won 107-102 in a difficult game where Darius Garland had to carry them down the stretch. Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff shared pregame that seeing the Thunder again allowed him and his team to make adjustments and attack Oklahoma City to make things a bit easier. Unfortunately, that ended up not being the case as even though Cleveland won 94-87, Bickerstaff was visibly frustrated.
"We’ll take the win, but that was a disappointing game for us," said Bickerstaff. "We didn’t play the game and approach the game with the seriousness that we needed to. It’s over now, we got the win, but we can’t afford to play that way."
"He wasn’t very happy. We weren’t either," said Cavaliers rookie star Evan Mobley. “Same thing at the end of the game. Feel like we didn’t come out with the energy we wanted to. We just have to play harder throughout the whole entire game and not take games for granted. Even if we’re up, we still have to play our brand of basketball and keep going.”
This is a golden time for Cleveland to take advantage of their schedule starting to get easier. That's why their win against Brooklyn on Monday was so important. The Cavaliers showed they were able to hang with some of the league's very best and put together a signature win. Sure, the loss on Wednesday to Chicago still shows that Cleveland has a ways to go. But, when playing a team like the Thunder, who are trying to intentionally lose, it can give you pause at times when trying to evaluate where this team is at right now.
A lot of that does have to do with losing Ricky Rubio for the season and barely having Rajon Rondo available. But, it feels like the Cavaliers have lost a bit of their identity as they enter the mid-season grind. Thankfully, Darius Garland had the right mentality on it all.
"We got to 28 wins and we think we're the big dogs now," said Garland. "We're not. We gotta be the underdogs every night."
Can Cleveland survive another serious blow to their lineup with Lauri Markkanen's injury?
Getting back to that underdog mentality might be easier for Cleveland after Lauri Markkanen went down on Saturday night. From the press box, it looked like Markkanen crumpled to the floor and was grabbing the back of his right ankle after landing awkwardly on the other end of the arena. Based on that reaction, the initial fear is that Markkanen tore his Achilles tendon. Somewhat thankfully, that didn't turn out to be the case as Markkanen was ruled out for the remainder of the game with an ankle sprain.
According to sources, X-rays of Markkanen's ankle came back clear and that the belief is he's suffered a high ankle sprain. There won't be an official diagnosis until the swelling goes down but all things considered, it could be worse. The issue is, Markkanen's injury usually requires a 4-6 window to recover, which means he won't be back until right after the All-Star break when the Cavaliers are on the road to play the Pistons.
That also means Markkanen will likely miss Cleveland's next 11 or so games. Sure, the Cavaliers weathered the storm when Markkanen was sidelined with COVID-19. Dean Wade stepped up well in Markkanen's absence and, according to J.B. Bickerstaff, will do so again after this latest injury. But, that's was when they still had Collin Sexton (for a bit) and Ricky Rubio on the floor to carry the offensive load.
So it's going to be interesting to see how things develop going forward for the Cavaliers. They're not typically an organization that overreacts and makes rash decisions the moment an injury happens. They usually are a lot more methodical in their approach and will likely evaluate how the team looks without Markkanen out there. They have the pieces still in place to succeed but things are going to get a lot uglier offensively.
When they lost Rubio for the year, Garland was still sidelined and the team struggled. So, they made a move to acquire Rondo to shore up reserve point guard minutes. But, when Sexton went down, the team was just fine and, in turn, they didn't do anything. If the Cavaliers struggle this upcoming week, don't be surprised if a move is made in order to stabilize the offensive flow.
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