When the Cleveland Cavaliers opened up on the road against the Toronto Raptors, excitement was palpable within the organization and amongst the fanbase. It all came crashing down when Raptors guard Gary Trent Jr. inadvertently poked franchise point guard Darius Garland in the left eye in the second quarter. Garland missed the remainder of the game against the Raptors and the Cavaliers lost 108-105. It took the wind out of Cleveland’s sails when Garland went down and soon the Cavaliers had to scrap their way through it.
The following day, the team announced that Garland would be sidelined for a bit due to suffering an inner eye laceration. Thankfully, there was no structural damage found when Garland was examined by medical professionals at Cleveland Clinic’s Coleman Eye Institute. Considering how bad it looked, there was a natural fear that Garland would require surgery and possibly miss the majority of the season.
“I thought he was exaggerating at first,” said Jarrett Allen after the season-opening loss to Toronto. “But then he wasn’t getting up, so I knew something was wrong. It looks like he got beat up.”
Naturally, the Cavaliers will take the small blessings in unfortunate situations whenever they can. But, for a team with such high hopes and riding so much positive momentum, it was quite a blow for the Cavaliers. Garland was the engine for Cleveland last season and was, naturally, expected to do the same this year. Thankfully, Garland wasn’t out long and only missed five games and made an explosive return in a home overtime win over the Boston Celtics. For Garland, it was tough being sidelined away from the game for a spell and tried his best to see everything he could from the bench.
“Everybody kept asking like, ‘How you doing? How’s your body?’ I’m like, ‘I’m perfectly fine, it’s my eye,'” said Garland after the 114-113 win over Boston. “Just sitting over there and having to wait and just seeing everybody get loose warming up and going through a full practice and stuff, it was just kinda aggravating. I tried to stay high. My teammates, they were winning. They was doing well, so I was happy about that. But I just wanted to be on the floor with them. I wanted to feel that energy.”
Garland shared with Right Down Euclid that during his recovery, he could only see properly to the right side of the court. When you’re the franchise point guard that’s suboptimal, to say the least. Thankfully, for both Garland’s and Cleveland’s sake, a lot of what he does on the floor requires muscle memory and having a willing playmaking alongside him in Donovan Mitchell softens the load as his eye continues to recover.
Fast forward to now, and Garland’s eye is still recovering. Garland once sarcastically pointed to it when asked a question on how his recovery is going, showing that it was still a bit swollen. Normally, Garland’s eye would recover with time and patience since everyone’s body is unique. But, in Garland’s case, it feels like his recovery has plateaued a bit and it isn’t from anything he’s done on or off the court. Instead, an unfortunate trend has started to pop up where opponents are becoming a bit too aggressive defending Garland and, in turn, are hitting him in the same left eye he injured on opening night.
“I’ve been hit in my eye about eight times this season already,” said Garland to Right Down Euclid on Thursday. “I don’t know what it is but, I mean, I’ve had a target on my back. So, I have to accept it. I’m just going to get hit in my face.”
Garland did go on to say to Right Down Euclid that he views teams being so aggressive toward him as a sign of respect for him and his game. But, he did say that how often his already injured eye is getting hit is, “getting out of hand”. Garland seems resigned to the fact that this is just how this season is going to go for him, healthy or not. He even told Right Down Euclid that he might ask the team to mould a protective mask or find him a pair of goggles just to keep him safer. But, to others within the Cavaliers, they aren’t watching the abuse Garland’s eye is taking quietly.
“He’s been hit in the face a lot,” said Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to Right Down Euclid after Cleveland’s 107-96 win over the Orlando Magic. “I think it’s our responsibility and all of our responsibilities to make sure that we’re protecting him. That’s us. That’s the people on the floor. That’s his teammates. We have a responsibility to protect all the guys.
“I do think that people are being a little overly physical because there’s a recognition of if you can’t put your hands on him and you can’t slow him down, you’re not going to be able to stop him. So I do think there is an emphasis from opponents to be physical and when you are physical, you’re going to find yourself in those positions. So I do think it’s a responsibility of all those involved to protect him.”
In order to protect Garland, a lot of it does fall on the shoulders of the officials on the floor. It’s the only way opponents will stop being overly physical against the Cleveland star and, as Bickerstaff alluded to, protect one of the league’s top players. In the season opener against Toronto, Trent was only called for a common foul when striking Garland in the eye. In a more recent instance against the Atlanta Hawks, meanwhile, Garland was hit in the face by Aaron Holiday and Garland fell to the floor. Once again it was only ruled a common foul and play carried on.
It happened most recently to Garland not once but twice when the Cavaliers defeated the Orlando Magic 107-96. The first came early into the game when Magic guard popped Garland in the face but play carried on. The second instance was when Orlando forward Franz Wagner elbowed Garland on the left side of his face, causing the guard to fall down in pain. Garland was down for several seconds and, again, nothing serious was called against Wagner; just a common foul.
Sure, none of these plays have clearly been the purpose or have evidence of being malicious, but it’s still happening a lot more than it should. If the officials aren’t going to call flagrant fouls to discourage this aggressive behavior, then it’s on the Cavaliers to take matters into their own hands. Mind you, that doesn’t mean Cleveland’s players need to go on a rampage hellbent on revenge for their star point guard every time they take the floor. But, there are actions the Cavaliers can take to better protect Garland to keep him standing upright on the hardwood.
“I think Wagner was a little wild,” said Kevin Love to Right Down Euclid. “He’s somebody who was trying to get into the game and get his team a rise. So, when that type of thing happens, we definitely need to protect our franchise point guard. I think it’s just making sure when that stuff happens that we have his back and that we let other teams know and that particular player know that that’s not how we’re gonna roll. That’s not how we’re going to play.”
“We can set really good screens to free him up and doing a little bit more pin screens just so he can have a little bit more space to operate,” said Lamar Stevens to Right Down Euclid. “Just use our physicality and using our bodies to just free him up to have more room to work, make plays and score.”
Bickerstaff expressed similar sentiments to Love and Stevens on how the Cavaliers can do more to protect Garland. Cleveland’s coach expressed to Right Down Euclid prior to the team’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers that the Cavaliers are going to be running heavier screen-based sets to get Garland more open and to peel his defender off of him. There’s only so much that Cleveland can control from the sideline and on the floor. So, they’re going to stick to their brand of basketball all while protecting the most important piece for them on offense.
To be frank, it’s all the Cavaliers really can do until this point. Thankfully, the constant badgering that his eye has taken hasn’t bothered Garland – he’s averaging 22.2 points and 7.9 assists this season. But, until the officials start making the right calls, things aren’t going to change any time soon. Sure, maybe rec specs or a mask will help but, at the end of the day, Garland is fed up with the over-aggressive play against him. Clearly, his teammate and head coach are too.
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at [email protected] He can also be found three to five times a week on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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