Heading into Sunday's national TV matchup against the Toronto Raptors on ESPN, the Cleveland Cavaliers only have 19 games left in the regular season. The majority of them will be in March – with Cleveland playing 14 of them at home and 5 on the road. Unfortunately, the Cavaliers will have to face off against the league's best to finish the season – including the Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers, two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference and the NBA, on multiple occasions.
Typically, this wouldn't be much of a concern for Cleveland. But, with how the Cavaliers have looked as of late they should beware the Ides of March. Cleveland is 1-4 coming out of the All-Star Break and looks like a shell of themselves from earlier in the season. Granted, they are unfortunately dealing with a slew of injuries with Darius Garland, Rajon Rondo and Caris LeVert sidelined all at the same time. Factor in the fact that Collin Sexton has been sidelined for the entire year and opposing teams have started to figure out some of the more unconventional ways Cleveland plays.
Thankfully, it appears that Garland is past his lingering back injury and gave a shot in the arm for the Cavaliers offensively. But, is Cleveland still asking too much out of Garland right now when they might need more? If Isaac Okoro keeps up his strong play, it could help soften the need for Garland overclocking his production. Today, we'll break all that down, along with a new weekly record prediction based on the general vibe around the team on Week 20 of key takeaways.
How much more can Cleveland ask of Darius Garland?
When Garland was sidelined at the beginning of the All-Star break, it became clear how badly the Cavaliers needed their superstar point guard. The offense looked stagnant nearly every possession and Cleveland had to grind it out with opponents in order to remain within reach. Granted, the Cavaliers only one game without Garland against the worthless Washington Wizards, 92-86. But, it did give fans a glimpse into what it could be like for Cleveland on offense, which is worth keeping in perspective later on in this segment.
So, when Garland did return to the court for the Cavaliers, it was a breath of fresh air offensively for Cleveland. In two games Garland is averaging 29.5 points per game on 52.3% shooting along with 11.5 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 38.0 minutes per game – more on those heavy minutes in a little bit. But, if it wasn't for Garland, the Cavaliers wouldn't be able to hang with the 76ers down the stretch and have a shot to win. Unfortunately, officiating and James Harden's propensity to abuse the system was the deciding factor and that's something Garland can't even surpass.
Another unfortunate thing is that while Garland is picking up where he left off (he shared with media it only took him one quarter to get back into his groove) some members of the Cavaliers on offense have struggled mightily. Evan Mobley is averaging 8.0 points on 37.5% shooting along with 4.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.0 blocks in 31.5 minutes per game. Starting small forward Lauri Markkaen, meanwhile, is averaging 9.0 points on 35.3% shooting to go with 6.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 steals in 24.0 minutes per game.
The only steady options in Cleveland's starting lineup alongside Garland are Isaac Okoro and Jarrett Allen. Since Garland's return to the court, Okoro and Allen are combining for 32.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. Allen being so strong makes perfect sense – he's Garland's most reliable on-court partner on a night-to-night basis. Okoro, meanwhile, can be a bit inconsistent offensively but he's been exactly what Cleveland needs on both ends of the floor every night, but, more on that in a bit.
The issue in itself is that the Cavaliers have become incredibly one-dimensional offensively with Mobley and Markkanen struggling so much. Garland is trying his damnedest to get Mobley and Markkanen, along with the rest of his teammates, involved – he had 19 assists Friday night against Philadelphia. But, again, Mobley and Markkanen have been unavailable lately.
But, if the aforementioned twosome continues to struggle and Okoro cools off a bit from his hot stretch, the Cavaliers will fall apart at the seams offensively. That means that if LeVert and Rondo remain sidelined for the next few games, Cleveland is going to have to ask more of Garland. With that said, it's unknown if the young All-Star has a enough left in his tank to carry the Cavaliers further than he already has.
Garland is already trying to bounce back from a back injury that's been nagging him since early January with a heavy workload. Granted, the extended minutes are out of necessity since Cleveland is in the thick of things playoff-wise. If the Cavaliers push Garland even further past his limits then the season could come tumbling down moreso than it already has.
Again, a lot of this can change trajectory if Rondo and LeVert become available in the coming days. Sure, it doesn't solve a lot of Cleveland's issues but they will make things easier for the team offensively down the stretch. It'll also make Garland's life a lot easier as well.
Cavaliers forward Isaac Okoro has been consistently great on defense throughout his NBA career. But, on offense is where Okoro is really starting to shine as of late.
Isaac Okoro has shown how valuable he can be for Cleveland on both ends of the floor
At the start of the season, defensive forward Lamar Stevens started barking as a way for the Cavaliers to embrace their underdog mentality and it quickly caught on. There was plenty of barking and just scrapping on both ends of the floor and after Cleveland's latest win, head coach J.B. Bickerstaff took it a step further.
Bickerstaff chose guard Isaac Okoro as the first to wear the Junkyard Dog chain after Cleveland defeated Washington last Saturday. Designed by Jared, the necklace with a massive “C” is a new idea from Bickerstaff to recognize the player who brings the most scrap and impact to the game. It's a well-deserved honor since Okoro has been guarding the opponent’s best player since he was drafted fifth overall out of Auburn in 2020. It's where Okoro has shined the brightest throughout his career and continues to do so every night.
“He's the type of player who honestly can score zero points and be the most impactful player on the floor,” Bickerstaff said. “It's not sexy, people don't write about it, I'm glad you asked about it. But his impact on winning is second to none and has been since he's been here with us.
“We've put him in some extremely difficult situations since he was a rookie here, and never once has he flinched, never has he wavered. The only thing that he does is try to help us win. And he wins it in the effort, he wins it in a way that most people aren't willing to do it. I think we're lucky to have him.”
“You look at the stat sheet, you're not going to see the flashiest numbers from Isaac every single night,” said Cleveland big man Jarrett Allen. “But the impact that he has on us off the court and on the defensive end, and just our morale as a team, you just can't put it into numbers. It's intangible because it gets us going. It gets us to play better defense. You see him running the court every single time, he just does all the little things you can ask.”
With how talented Okoro is on the defensive of the ball, it's easy to understand why so many effuse praise his way. As Bickerstaff and Allen said, Okoro doesn't make the biggest impact on a night-to-night basis on the offensive side of the ball. He still struggles at times from three-point range and opposing teams will wall off the paint from him because of it. That, along with a shaky handle, limits what Okoro's offensive ceiling can be some nights. But, in the last segment, it was gleaned that Okoro has been strong on offense as of late – averaging 13.0 points on 64.3% shooting along with 2.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.
Again, his major impact will always be on the defensive side of the ball. But, this recent offensive surge is a promising development from Okoro. While the Cavaliers do need to lean more on Garland, they should also stretch out the limits of what Okoro's recent offensive development could hold. If it sustains, then Cleveland could be cooking with grease come playoff time. Sure, Okoro will draw the defensive assignment of the opposing team's best perimeter player in a seven-game series and will likely match them minute for minute. But, if he's also able to keep opposing defenses honest, it feels more likely that the Cavaliers could get out of the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
Granted, his all hinges on this recent offensive surge sustaining for Okoro. Historically speaking it, unfortunately, won't but, this might be a sign of things to come when the young guard is hitting his apex. Hopefully, it does sustain then Okoro becomes less of a liability offensively and is able to contribute to winning on both ends of the floor.
Cleveland two-way guard Brandon Goodwin has played well as of late. But, the only reason he is is due to injuries – which have caused the Cavaliers to stumble.
Record check-in – Where do the Cavaliers finish in the Eastern Conference?
As mentioned at the top, going forward until the season ends we'll be checking in on Cleveland and guesstimate where they'll finish overall in Eastern Conference standings. As of Sunday morning, they are in sixth place, narrowly avoiding the play-in tournament and a full game behind the Boston Celtics.
Given how Cleveland's schedule looks for the remainder of the month and how they've struggled as of late, it's easy to say that they won't climb back up the conference and host a first-round playoff series. With only 19 games to go in the regular season, it also feels safe to say that Cleveland will likely go 9-10 during that stretch as well. They have tough opponents in the Bulls, the Heat, the Clippers, the Bucks and the Nets to wrap up the season. They also have to play the 76ers two more times as well.
Things can change when Cleveland gets healthier but, again, it feels easy to be down on the Cavaliers right now. Sure, they've exceeded nearly every expectation up to this point. But, there's only so much you can do when dealing with so many injuries at once.
Final record prediction: 45-37, plays Milwaukee in the first round.
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