Fun for All Ages
Wine & Gold Roll On as the Wild Campaign Approaches Game 50
There isn’t a better story in the NBA this season than the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And, as with any great story, you simultaneously want it to keep going forever and yet you can’t wait to see how it ends. To quote Kevin Love after his squad’s double-digit win over the World Champs on Wednesday: “I wish I could bottle it.”
Sunday night’s contest in Motown marks the 50-game mark for the Wine & Gold, who have now firmly entrenched themselves in the Eastern Conference postseason conversation. And from here, some important dates await. The Trade Deadline is on February 10, All-Star Weekend in Cleveland begins on the 18th and, yes, the NBA Playoffs begin on April 16.
There’s no need to shame people who, before the season, didn’t believe the Cavaliers story would’ve unfolded how it has. No one did.
Seemingly every week a different hurdle has been thrown in the path of J.B. Bickerstaff’s pugnacious young group. And most of them looked like they might derail the tale. Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio’s season-ending injuries. The league’s toughest schedule to start the season. COVID issues. Lauri Markkanen’s recent injury. Through 16 different starting lineups, things have looked bleak, but the beat went on.
In Wednesday night’s victory over the Bucks, almost completely at full-strength, the Cavs held their 20th opponent (and the East’s second-highest scoring squad) under the century mark, winning for the eighth time in nine tries and improving to 10-3 on the month. Cleveland, now 5-2 in the division, trails only the Miami Heat for wins in the East.
It’s been a very realistic possibility that both Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen could reach their first All-Star Game this season, but now there’s a solid chance that J.B. Bickerstaff could be the one coaching them, with head coaches being named two weeks before the mid-season classic.
"What (the players) know is that they believe in each other, and that’s the most important thing,” said Bickerstaff, who recently inked a deal to remain at the helm for the foreseeable future. “They have no fear. But they have no fear because there’s a large level of trust in that locker room. And nobody ever feels like they’re out there on their own. Whether it’s good or bad, they always feel like somebody’s got their back. And when you have that type of support system, you’re going to give yourself a chance.”
The Cavaliers success this season is organic. It’s not smoke-and-mirrors and it’s beyond sustainable. In fact, the plan is just in its infancy. Cleveland’s starting lineup – including the ancient 24-year-old Lauri Markkanen – averages exactly 22.0 years of age. Collin Sexton is 23 years old. Four key reserves – Lamar Stevens, Dean Wade, Dylan Windler and Brandon Goodwin – are mature, efficient former four-year men in college. All have come up big on different occasions. Cedi Osman, one of the deans of the squad, is still just 26, and having one of the best seasons of his career.
The Wine & Gold are the only team in the Eastern Conference that’s top three scorers are all under the age of 23.
And then there’s Kevin Love – (who went from “Uncle Kevin” to “Grandpa Kevin” in Jarrett Allen’s postgame presser) – and who might be at the genesis of this entire story.
When the future Hall of Famer bought into the J.B. Bickerstaff’s plan, it had an effect on the entire group of youngsters. And after a pair of frustrating seasons for the 14-year veteran, he’s got a new lease of life this season – averaging 14.2 points and 7.2 rebounds despite starting just two games. And he’s been even better of late – averaging 22.5 points on 54 percent shooting from the floor, 52 percent from deep over his last two outings.
"I almost don’t want to acknowledge what we have right now, I want us to stay super-hungry,” said Love after leading Cleveland with 25 points against Milwaukee, his 10th 20-plus game this year, “We’re what – 11 games over .500, we have 30 wins, people didn’t expect us to be here. But I like that we’re hungry, that we feel like we’re underdogs. People have sacrificed, people have stepped up. Guys come in and work their asses off. I know that we’ll continue to do that, but I’d rather us fly under the radar. Let just grind and continue to be us.”
Playing hard, night-in and night-out, is a skill in the NBA. Straight-up hustle and grit are worth five wins a year, and the Wine & Gold are living proof. And at 15-10 away from the FieldHouse, they’re also proof that defense traveling well is no cliché.
"They have no fear because there’s a large level of trust in that locker room. And nobody ever feels like they’re out there on their own. Whether it’s good or bad, they always feel like somebody’s got their back."
The season-long numbers for Cleveland have been outstanding, but just over the team’s latest run – winning eight of nine – Darius Garland is averaging 19.9 points and 11.8 assists, Jarrett Allen is averaging 13.0 points and 12.0 rebounds and Evan Mobley is averaging 15.9 points and 8.3 boards per. Allen and Garland have doubled-up in every game but two during that stretch; Mobley and Allen have at least two blocks in four different games.
All three (plus Isaac Okoro) can – and should – be suiting up in Cleveland during All-Star Weekend.
"We had a couple things coming into the season about our identity: we wanted to be the hardest working team out there and we wanted to give 100 percent effort on the defensive end,” said Allen, who surpassed his double-double total from last season in the win over Milwaukee. “And we’ve been holding to that all season. We’ve had our ups and downs, but overall, we’ve stuck to our identity, and it’s carrying us.”
So, where does the story go from here? Do we live happily ever after? Or are there still more bumps in the road?
The Cavs have one more Western Conference road contest remaining, next Wednesday in Houston. Cleveland has four at home and five on the road in February, but plays 10 of its 15 games in March at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse – welcoming the Lakers, Nuggets, Clippers and Mavericks. One-third of their remaining games are against teams currently outside the Play-In Tournament. The Cavs close the campaign against the Nets in Brooklyn and the Bucks in Cleveland. Who know what those game might mean?
You don’t need to be asked to tune in and see how the story ends. The Cavaliers are must-see TV from here on out. They’ve done something Clevelanders aren’t quiet used to: They’ve wildly exceeded our expectations.
The Wine & Gold take on the Pistons and Pelicans in a back-to-back after a well-earned three-day break. It’s a 31-game rush to the finish line from there. And we could be an exhilarating springtime on the lake.
During a telecast earlier this season, the Cavaliers color analyst duo summed it up the season succinctly. Referring to the Miami Heat, who’d taken 20 straight on their home floor, Austin Carr said: “We owe them.” To which Brad Daugherty replied: “We owe everybody. They’re just next.”