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We're six weeks into the season for the Cleveland Cavaliers and most, other than their biggest diehards, expected them to be in the position they're in. After defeating the Orlando Magic 105-92 at home Saturday night, the Cavaliers are perfectly balanced, as all things should be at 10-10 and sitting in the thick of the playoff race. No one, this writer included, expected that given how young and inexperienced this Cleveland team is on top of the fact that Collin Sexton is sidelined for the remainder of the season due to meniscus surgery.
But, it appears the Cavaliers will indeed be alright with Sexton with the rest of the team's key pieces finally returning to the rotation fully healthy. It also helps that Turkish swingman Cedi Osman, much like his team, has erased plenty of preconceived notions about him. This Cleveland team is full of fun and is playing loose and free, unlike the Browns, and should be the playoff team fans should be getting behind.
Cleveland has proved that they'll be fine without Collin Sexton in tow
It has now been nine games for the Cavaliers without scoring guard Collin Sexton in the lineup. During that span, Cleveland has gone 3-6 with wins over bottom feeders in Detroit and Orlando as well as over a talented Boston team at home. If you were to just look at that, you'd say that the Cavaliers and their playoff ambitions are dead in the water with Sexton now done for the year. Cleveland was able to beat bad teams like the Pistons and Magic but, for the most part, haven't been able to win much else. That, or you can become fixated on the fact that there's a clear lack of scoring as well for the Cavaliers.
Sure, it's easy to obsess over those things but fans shouldn't see the forest for the trees. Despite Sexton going down for the year, the Cavaliers are finally getting healthy again. Kevin Love and Lauri Markkanen, two elite shooters, are finally getting back into the swing of things after dealing with COVID. Lamar Stevens (ankle) is back as well and bolsters an already barebones wing rotation. Most importantly of all Evan Mobley, Cleveland's best player, suffered a sprained elbow several games ago but returned to the court much earlier than expected.
We're finally starting to see what this Cavaliers team is capable of without Sexton now that other key players are finally healthy. It's safe to assume that the scoring concerns will be subsided as well. Part of that is Mobley, Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen continuing to grow on the floor together and prove why they're the faces of the franchise. The other part of it is the fact that players like Markkanen and Love can improve Cleveland's shooting numbers as well as their scoring production.
Garland's playmaking more than anything makes that possible for Markkanen and Love. With Sexton out, Garland has been given the full reigns of the team's offense and frankly, has been incredible. In the last nine games, Garland has averaged 21.9 points, 6.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game. With the team now becoming healthy, look for those numbers to only improve and, in turn, lead to more winning as well.
Besides, it isn't a contest to be the best fan of the Cavaliers, or Sexton, by pointing out the team's record or statistics without him. Frankly, it's weird to be so obsessed with a grown man like that and, according to sources, Sexton also feels that way. More than anything, Sexton would want those fans to support his teammates as they start to round the corner and push Cleveland back to the playoffs. It would be something special. The team has never done that without LeBron James during Dan Gilbert's tenure as owner.
Cavaliers swingman Cedi Osman has been sensational off the bench for Cleveland this season. Osman's play has been a key factor in why the team is winning.
Cedi Osman should be an early frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year
Cedi Osman's play has been one of the brightest spots in nearly two months of play for the Cavaliers. Considering that other than Osman the Cavaliers have Denzel Valentine, a draft bust, and Dylan Windler, an oft-injured draft bust, so the fact that Bickerstaff was able to get anything of value from Osman really quelled concerns in terms of Cleveland's wing depth.
“His role is to be a spark off the bench,” said Bickerstaff to Cleveland.com “Take and make open shots and facilitate when the defense dictates it. We’ve tried our best to simplify his role. He’s bought into the team and he’s trying to do what’s best for the group. He’s become a star in his role.”
If you consider that, along with the fact that last season was a low point in Osman's career, and what fans are seeing on a night-to-night basis is incredible. Bickerstaff took responsibility for Osman's struggles. He was asked to play out of position, shifting from his natural at the 3 to the 4 due to injuries. There were moments Osman had the ball in his hands as a playmaker and other times he was used as a gunner on the perimeter. There was no consistency or stability and it led to Osman drawing unfair criticism from fans and analysts all over the league.
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Coming into training camp, the goal was to avoid repeating those issues. Bickerstaff laid out, in detail, his expectations for Osman. Coming off another strong showing with the Turkish National Team during the offseason, and seeing his hard work behind the scenes, Cleveland believed that the 26-year-old swingman would bounce back.
So far, Osman has been a staple for the Cavaliers off the bench – averaging 11.8 points in 22.2 minutes per game. The Turkish forward is also shooting a career-best from the floor as well. Osman has been consistent for the first time in a while for Cleveland, thanks in part to both Bickerstaff and Ricky Rubio. The swingman has been great for the Cavaliers and a key reason why Cleveland is hanging with so many teams.
“I feel comfortable right now,” Osman said. “I just feel confident. I’m playing my game. I know my role. I’m just trying to do what’s best for the team.”
More often than not, Osman is closing games despite the fact he's exclusively a bench player. That's testament to how well he's playing this year and it's translating to Cleveland remaining in the thick of things playoff-wise. Because of this, Osman should firmly be in the discussion, as well as a darkhorse favorite, for Sixth Man of the Year this season. As the Cavaliers continue to win, don't be surprised when Osman becomes a favorite for the award. Place your bets now.
J.B. Bickerstaff, along with the rest of the Cavaliers, believe that Cleveland is being disrespected by both their opponents as well as league officials.
Opponents, and officials, need to start respecting these Cavaliers
What's become clear about this Cavaliers squad is that they will not go quietly into the night. They are not the same team as last year, despite the majority of last year's squad returning this season. This Cleveland team plays hard and their own brand of basketball on a night-to-night basis and has been showing there are no easy outs for opponents whenever they take on the Cavaliers.
But, unfortunately, it feels like it isn't just Cleveland's opponents the Cavaliers are taking on every night either.
“We match intensity, but what we have to do and have happen is match consistency,” said Bickerstaff after the team's recent loss to the Brooklyn Nets. “That’s in our performance. That’s the referee’s performance. That’s in all aspects of the game. We saw it tonight, we saw it the other night. We have to find a way as a staff, as players to earn people’s respect, where it is consistent. That’s what this league is about. This league is about your reputation and you earn your reputation. Those guys have earned their reputation. What’s right is right. I thought there were some calls that were definitely missed tonight that favored (Brooklyn), and that’s wrong. Our guys deserve better than that.
“We have to continue to keep pushing and keep scrapping until everybody in the league gives us that respect. The scrap, the toughness, the way we compete, people should respect that. But I don’t think they’re watching. I don’t think they’ve seen the reputation that we’ve earned around the league. If you talk to other coaches, the teams we faced, there’s a respect there that we deserve, and that our guys have earned. But too many times there’s been critical moments where the consistency hasn’t been the same one end to the other end.”
To be clear: there is no way to say that the league's referees have a vendetta exclusively against Cleveland. Bickerstaff isn't saying that either since all 30 teams could argue some calls didn't go in their favor on a certain night. There will always be missed calls and that's part of human error being factored into game planning.
But, when observing games this year, it does feel like certain opponents get more favorable calls at times compared to the Cavaliers. A lot of that has to do with the quality of opponents, like Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, though. With Cleveland getting healthier and playing better, they should be getting those calls in time as well. As Bickerstaff said, this Cavaliers team plays hard every single night and opponents have begun to respect them for that. It'll only be a matter of time before the officials do as well.
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