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To be brief, Darius Garland is having a truly remarkable season for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Sure, there were expectations for Garland to take the next leap and become Cleveland's point guard of the future. But, through the team's five-game winning streak Garland has been the key figure in nearly everything. After suffering a meltdown in the Cavaliers' 96-82 loss to the Golden State Warriors, Garland has been sensational. So much so that he earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors for Week 13, averaging 20.5 points, 12.8 assists and 6.0 rebounds per game over that stretch.
Garland and the rest of the Cavaliers found out he won those honors during Cleveland's 114-107 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. After the game, it became clear that some of the team's key figures felt it was well deserved.
"It's the respect that everybody is hunting for," said Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. "To be acknowledged by the league, that's why guys do what they do. That's why they put in all the work. That's why they put in all the time. But, the part I like what the league does is whatever it is how you do or how you play has to impact winning. If you have a bunch of stats and it doesn't impact winning, very rarely do you see that guy get Player of the Week. So, this is about winning and Darius was playing well and helped us win."
"Everyone was saying congratulations and that was cool," said Garland. "But, I'm glad we got the win, though."
Despite the humility, Garland and his Cavaliers should be beating their chest for what they've already accomplished season. Sure, Garland has cemented his status as Cleveland's most important player. But, if you were to ask him or anyone else on the team and they'd all agree it's been a collaborative effort and that really showed during their latest win over Brooklyn.
"It's a signature win for us," said Bickerstaff after Monday's game. "Playing against two of the most elite players in our league and our guys figuring out a way. To me, the most impressive thing is you hold a team like that to nineteen points in the fourth quarter. That lets you know what you're capable of defensively.
"Every day these guys make me feel that way. They really do. Ups and downs good and bad, their commitment and their approach never changes and never wavers. … But, it's never about themselves. Everything is always about the group. I couldn't be more proud of them."
Bickerstaff isn't being farfetched. Defeating Brooklyn was a signature win for his team. Sure, the Nets were missing Kevin Durant, arguably the best player in the league. But, they still had James Harden and Kyrie Irving, two of the most dangerous offensive players in the game, on the floor all night long. Cleveland also lost to the Nets twice before this season with Durant and Harden dominating while Irving was trying to argue that science and conventional medicine isn't trustworthy amidst a global pandemic.
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If you want to continue to poke holes in Cleveland's case then you could mention their recent wins over the Chicago Bulls and the Milwaukee Bucks, who were also missing key star players. But, you should also circle back to the fact that the Cavaliers have been down Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio for the better part of the season, who soak up a large volume of Cleveland's scoring. That, along with the fact that the Cavaliers were still able to hang tight with the Warriors, the best team in the league, really puts into perspective how significant this win over the Nets was. It's the NBA, no team is going to be fully healthy at any given time, especially with the omicron variant of COVID-19 running rampant.
While Darius Garland holds things down on offense for Cleveland, Cavaliers big man Jarrett Allen protects the paint an an elite level.
Instead, you should appreciate the fact that this young Cleveland squad, that no one predicted would be in the thick of the playoff race, is able to show their growth in real-time. After Monday's victory over Brooklyn, the Cavaliers are first in defensive rating, net rating and nearly every major defensive stat available. Cleveland is a defense-first team and always has been this season, playing three seven-footers at the same time and making life hell for opponents. Brooklyn scored just 19 points in the fourth quarter. Isaac Okoro locked up with Irving, with the Nets guard scoring just four of his 27 points in the last quarter, on 2-of-7 shooting. Harden, meanwhile, missed the two shots he took and committed two turnovers.
The defense typically takes care of itself for the Cavaliers. But, Cleveland also knows they can turn the offense over to Garland with the game on the line. Again, Garland has been brilliant this season and is the team's most important player going forward. But, when he plays with fellow big three members Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, Cleveland is nearly unstoppable.
45 games into the season and the Cavaliers are 28-9 when all three of Garland, Mobley and Allen share the floor together. While Garland takes care of things on offense, Mobley and Allen defend the interior for Cleveland at an elite level. The big man tandem carries the same presence on the offensive side of the ball as well, complimenting Garland beautifully as the primary recipients. This also benefits Cleveland's supporting cast as well, with roleplayers like Okoro and Cedi Osman thriving in this new offensive dichotomy.
In the end, you can be a naysayer to what the Cavaliers are and what they're becoming all you want. What they are is a legitimate threat to make some noise in the Eastern Conference this season. No, they aren't going to win the title this season. But, the fact that they're so ahead of schedule on their rebuild, coupled with the fact that they're going to get invaluable playoff experience, is beyond encouraging for what's to come.
It's well and good to think about that but that's still down the line for later this season. For now, Cleveland will remain focused on Chicago, their next opponent. If the Cavaliers win, it'll be their sixth in a row. They'll also be 0.5 games back of the best overall record in the Eastern Conference. Go ahead and chalk that up as a signature win too if it were to happen.
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