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Rough Record, But Major Strides by Young Guns
The last month-and-a-half of the Wine and Gold’s most recent season was less about the overall record during that stretch – (hint: it wasn’t good) – and more about the growth of the team’s two most recent Draft picks.
Let’s get through the tough part first.
The Cavaliers struggled mightily down the stretch, compiling a 5-20 mark over this six-week span as injuries continued to pile up. Cleveland dropped 13 of its final 14 games – which included an 11-game skein that saw the squad lose by an average of over 17 points per. After besting Boston in the final home contest of the year, the Cavs dropped their final two on the road in Washington and Brooklyn.
J.B. Bickerstaff’s team began the month of April with a pair of losses, including their 20th consecutive defeat on South Beach to tip off a three-game trip. But after falling on South Beach, Cleveland put together its best back-to-back road efforts of the season – demolishing the Spurs in San Antonio before blasting the Thunder in OKC, winning the two games by a combined 51 points.
Like the team itself, sophomore Darius Garland got off to a slow start in April. But he was the driving force in Cleveland’s blowout win over San Antonio – notching a career-best 37 points on 14-of-22 shooting, including 5-of-10 from deep, adding two steals and a block.
Garland would continue his rock-solid run throughout the month – topping the 20-point plateau in eight more games during April, including a stretch of six straight that featured a 28-point, nine-assist gem in Washington and a 22-point, career-high-tying 12-assist night in a road loss to the Bulls.
In 15 outings in the month of April, the 20-year-old from Vanderbilt averaged 20.5ppg and 7.3apg, shooting 48 percent from the floor and 39 percent from deep. Over that stretch, Garland had seven games of at least two steals and three outings handing out double-digit assists.
But like the rest of the squad, Garland was not immune to the injury bug – which limited him to just a single appearance in the month of May – a 12-minute stint off the bench in the season’s penultimate contest against the Wizards.
After missing five games very early in the season due to health and safety protocols, Isaac Okoro started every game the rest of the way. And just when it looked like the No. 5 overall pick in last year’s Draft had hit the dreaded “rookie wall,” he hit a new gear and closed the campaign playing his best ball of the season.
Okoro was considered the club’s top perimeter defender from the moment he took the floor and took on the toughest assignment from that point on – from point guards to power forwards. Coaches and opponents both appreciated his work ethic, toughness, and the fact that, as a 19-year-old, was utterly unflappable at the game’s highest level.
Defensively, Okoro was as advertised. He took his lumps, to be sure. But he never wilted and eventually proved to be the Cavs most durable player. But, like it is for most rookies, the offensive end was a different story.
Okoro showed flashes but looked to be wearing down later in the season. But after a stretch in which he notched double-figures in just one game in a six-game stretch, the light came on for the Atlanta native.
On April 25 in Washington, Okoro finished with 10 points on 3-of-7 shooting. It was a pretty pedestrian night, even for the rook, but he would proceed to notch double-figures in every game but one from that point forward.
The brightest moment came in an overtime loss to the Suns at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, with the former Auburn standout went off for a career-high 32 points – eclipsing his previous high of 20 by the end of the third quarter. On the night, Okoro went 10-for-16 from the floor, including 3-of-4 from deep and a perfect 9-of-9 from the stripe, to go with six assists, three boards, and a steal.
When the season came to its completion, Okoro had notched double-figures in 12 of his final 13 games, averaging 15.7 points per over that stretch, shooting 42 percent from the floor while still doing most of the heavy lifting on the defensive end.
Okoro tallied his first career double-double – 22 points and 10 boards – in a loss to Indy on May 10, and handed out 11 combined assists in the next two games before finishing up with a strong 18-point effort in Brooklyn.
The Cavs didn’t pile up a lot of wins in the last month-and-a-half of the 2020-21 season, but they saw some of their younger building blocks make major strides in the process.