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A Season for the Dogs

Scrappy Young Cavaliers Carving Their Own Way Early This Season
by Joe Gabriele Beat Writer

A Season for the Dogs

Scrappy Young Cavaliers Carving Their Own Way Early This Season

At the quarter mark of the 2021-22 season, it’s OK to go ahead and admit it: Nobody expected the Cavaliers to be where they are 21 games in.

They’ve got a long way to go, but to this point, J.B. Bickerstaff’s feisty young squad has exceeded all expectations – and Monday's one-sided win over Dallas drove that point home. Over the course of the Mavericks’ six-game win streak over Cleveland, they’d won by an average of 21.2 points, including a 42-point drubbing two years ago.

"We’re a different team," said Coach Bickerstaff. “So I don’t think you can equate what’s happened in the past to this group. I think the young guys that have been here and been through those struggles have matured, we’ve added some key pieces to make us a different basketball team, our mentality is different. We just go out about our business, and each game is a different test for us. And we try to excel every night at that test and don’t worry about what’s happened in the past.”

The Cavaliers have endured the NBA’s toughest schedule so far and are 11-10, a mark that includes a five-game losing skid. Going into Tuesday’s games, Cleveland has the same mark as the Sixers, Hawks and Celtics – all Playoff teams from a season ago.

Ricky Rubio comes into Wednesday's game averaging a career-best scoring mark despite starting just five games this year.
David Liam Kyle via Getty Images

And Monday’s win in Dallas was no fluke. With the victory, the Wine & Gold improved to 3-3 on the road against the Western Conference this season, with double-digit wins over the Clippers, Nuggets and Mavericks already this season. They’ve held double-digit leads over all their Western Conference Playoff opponents (except Memphis) this year.

They’ve lost just five games by double-figures this year – the largest margin at the hands of the Warriors, whom they led going into the fourth quarter before being blitzed in the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers haven’t waved the white flag in any defeat this season.

Last year, the Cavs lost 17 games to opponents by 20 points or or more. They’ve already beaten nine of those teams this year.

So much of the Cavaliers current success stems from last January’s trade that brought Jarrett Allen (and Taurean Prince) to Cleveland. In the deal, Cleveland sent guard Dante Exum and an unprotected 2022 first rounder (via Milwaukee) to Houston and a 2024 second rounder to Brooklyn in exchange for the young center and reserve swingman.

This summer, they sent Prince, a 2022 second rounder and cash considerations to the Timberwolves for Rubio.

Both have been an essential part of changing the Cavaliers culture.

Allen is having an All-Star-caliber season, capped by his career-best performance in Monday night’s win over the Mavericks – going off for 28-points and 14 boards. The 23-year-old center from Texas has now doubled-up in four straight games and nine of his last 11. At .698, Allen ranks 2nd in the NBA in field goal percentage and his 3.4 offensive boards per rank is the league’s 5th-best mark.

But aside from the numbers, Allen has been all the things the Cavaliers have become. He’s played with a combination of joy and tenacity, hustle and consistency. He knows his role and, as Coach Bickerstaff says: is the best version of it. He’s been as good as any big in the East this season. And he looks like he’s having fun doing it.

”I am (having fun),” said Allen. “And that’s a testimony to the team. I couldn’t be having this much fun if everybody was sulking, or if everybody else had an ego or was selfish. We’re all having fun. We’re all jelling together. And I’m just living the life right now.”

Rubio has also exemplified everything the Cavaliers have become so far this season.

The 10th-year man parlayed a prolific Olympic run with his Spanish national team and become exactly what the Wine & Gold were lacking. And with the tragic season-ending injury to Collin Sexton, he’s become critical to the Cavaliers success moving forward.

The Cavs wanted ‘national team’ Rubio and that’s what they’ve gotten. He comes into Wednesday’s contest averaging a career-best 14.2ppg despite just five starts. He’s steadied the ship, provided an excellent mentor to Darius Garland – while routinely challenging him – and given Cleveland some needed punch off the bench, including his historic 37-point explosion in New York.

Rubio and his former teammate, Kevin Love, have both been thriving in their roles.

Love’s notched eight games of double-figure points and four more of double-digit boards and has also been a steadying veteran presence. Aside from an eight-game absence under the league’s health and safety protocols, Love has been solid off the bench and embraced his new role.

"I couldn’t be having this much fun if everybody was sulking, or if everybody else had an ego or was selfish. We’re all having fun. We’re all jelling together. And I’m just living the life right now."

In terms of embracing their role, no reserve has been consistently better than Cedi Osman, who’s having his best year since his sophomore season despite not starting a single game. The 5th-year man has three 20-point games so far – all Cavs wins – and has notched double-figure scoring in 10 of his 17 outings off the bench.

Lauri Markkanen came to Cleveland under some pressure – attempting to replace fan favorite and native son, Larry Nance Jr. And after some early struggles and a nine-game absence of his own, has been outstanding over the last four games.

The 5th-year man from Arizona is averaging exactly 20.0ppg on exactly 50 percent shooting (29-for-58) over his last four game, three of those topping the 20-point plateau. Over that stretch, he’s also averaging 8.0 boards per contest and shooting 42 percent (14-of-33) from deep.

Markkanen, Allen and Cleveland’s prized rookie Evan Mobley have formed what’s been a revolutionary trio in the league this year.

Mobley, the No. 3 pick of this year’s Draft, has been the symbol of Cleveland’s success.

He was expected to be very good for a 20-year-old. But few people thought he could be this good, this fast.

Mobley leads the entire league in contested shots per game (14.8) and, at 1.75bpg, is in the NBA’s top 10 in both blocks and blocks per game.

His 30 swats are more than twice as many as the next closest competitors in his rookie class. Mobley also leads his class in double-doubles (4) and field goal percentage (.490) and is second in scoring (14.4) as well as rebounds (8.0) and minutes (33.8) per game.

He’s already blocked four shots in a game on three occasions this year but has only reached four personal fouls once.

And then there’s the team’s quarterback – (who happened to be at the receiving end of a Kevin Love TD pass on Monday – “I felt like Jarvis Landry out there”) – Darius Garland, another Cavalier posting an All-Star-type season.

The 3rd-year man from Vanderbilt, who’s probably been asked to be more aggressive than normal on the offensive end, has led the way all season – leading the team in scoring (18.6ppg) and assist (7.2apg), with three double-doubles, this year.

”It feels good, beating a good team like Dallas,” said Garland, who finished with 18 points and a team-high nine dimes. “We tried to not take our foot off the gas in the second half. I thought we played really well, but we have to keep growing from it and play all 48 minutes. That’s our next step.”

Over his last dozen games, the 21-year-old who recently became the 4th-youngest Cavalier to reach 2,000 career points, has averaged 21.0 points per, with seven 20-point games in the mix and two games of double-digit assists.

But if you add all those numbers up, they still can’t fully explain the dog’s mentality these guys are showing on a nightly basis. The barking started on the bench by Lamar Stevens earlier this season has caught on, and now the young Cavs are bringing the bite.

These aren’t the same Cavaliers from the past few seasons. Turning the tables on Dallas and elsewhere on the road should tell the Association that these Cavaliers don’t give a damn about the past.

So, if there’s a nasty new version of the Wine & Gold that’s ready to snap a 20-game losing streak South Beach, maybe this is the one.


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