The Cavaliers pride themselves on being a bunch of dogs. And when they turn it up on the defensive end, they can be a pugnacious group of youngsters.
But their backcourt contains two very high-profile offensive-minded players in Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell. Jarrett Allen, the franchise’s all-time field goal percentage leader – is one year removed from an All-Star appearance and Evan Mobley was last season’s Rookie of the Year runner-up and currently might be the best sophomore in the Association.
The Cavaliers starter who does the true dirty work is Isaac Okoro.
On a nightly basis, the 3rd-year pro from Auburn has the thankless job of checking the opponent’s best perimeter option on the defensive end. On the offensive end, he takes opportunities when he can get them, but is rarely the top option.
The rugged 22-year-old – sometimes labeled by teammates as the low-key funniest player on the squad – has played in all 65 games for Cleveland so far this season and hasn’t appeared in less 67 in either of his first two seasons.
With the emergence of Mitchell and ascension of Mobley, the former No. 5 overall pick’s numbers have taken a dip this season – getting fewer shot attempts and averaging 6.3ppg on a career-best 49 percent shooting from the floor. He’s notched 15 double-digit scoring performances this year – including three straight games in early February.
One of those outings in mid-February was a season-high 20-point effort against Indiana, going 7-for-9 from long-range in the process. He’s posted eight games this season – including both meetings against Memphis – in which he didn’t miss a single shot from the floor.
But as the Cavaliers are currently constructed, Okoro’s offensive ambitions will have to wait. Right now, he’s the best perimeter defender on the league’s best defense – and he’ll have to continue making his bones in the trenches.
As the Wine and Gold prepare to welcome the Pistons to town on Saturday night, Cavs.com sat down with the man they call “Ice” to talk about his defensive philosophy, what to prepare for in the season’s home stretch and, yes, even his thoughts on the final season of one of his (and Darius Garland’s) favorite TV shows, Snowfall …
As a team, what did you learn about last year’s stretch run after the Break that could help this year?
Isaac Okoro: We just know that after All-Star Break, teams really start trying to play Playoff basketball. They’re more physical, they compete harder. They’re not coasting through the game.
So, we know that after the Break we need to turn up our level of intensity too.
What’s your defensive philosophy?
Okoro: I just want to bring the physicality, that’s the main thing for me. I want the player to feel me. I want him to think: ‘If I’m going against Isaac, he’s gonna bull his way through every screen.’ They have to make sure the big is actually setting screens on me.
And I want to make sure they have to go to their second, third, fourth moves on me.
I just try to have that mindset.
Preparing for a game, do you focus in on an individual player or the opponent as a whole?
Okoro: I look at the team. I mean, I look at the best player, because I know that’s who I’m going to guard. But I can’t always just lock in on one guy because of how the game goes: you’re guarding one player and another guy gets hot, I might have to switch onto that person and try to cool him down.
So, I have to know everybody on the team and their tendencies.
How do you guard an opponent who’s smaller than you?
Okoro: If he’s a small, quick guard, I’ll try to use my length and my size. I’ll take a step back a little bit, catch some of his quickness.
And it depends on what guard it is. If it’s Trae Young, you can’t be as physical because he loves to actually use his size as an advantage and draw a lot of fouls. Or if it’s a guy like Jalen Brunson – a stronger, smaller guard – he’s not going to flop or try to draw fouls. So, I know I can be more physical with him.
And going up against a bigger guy?
Okoro: Going against a guy bigger than me I usually just try to pressure the ball more, make them have to use their dribble, make them use their third or fourth move on me. I try to body him up, not let him get too deep in the paint.
And knowing that I have Evan and J.A. back there to back me up – that helps.
What’s your focus on the offensive end?
Okoro: I just play in the flow of the game, reading off of D.G. and Donovan.
I just stay in the flow, cutting, seeing how the defense is playing me. If they’re leaving me open, I’m shooting it. If they’re not watching me, I’m cutting back door, trying to get dunks. And I’m always looking for offensive rebounds.
And what are the team’s offensive expectations of you?
Okoro: They may not expect me to score, but I have high expectations for myself, and I still try to be as much a part of the offense as I can. Try to get fastbreak points, run the floor, hit open shots, make plays for my teammates.
When Danny Green arrived, he mentioned you specifically as a ‘3-and-D’ guy who play be effective in this league for a long time. What have you learned from him in his short time with the team?
Okoro: Yeah, he started talking to me as soon as he got here – the Philly game, the first game. Throughout the game he was giving me pointers. Of course, he’s played and practiced against James Harden, so was giving me a lot of defensive tips.
That morning at shootaround, he showed me some offensive stuff, too – places to be, how to move without the ball, how he read off of his point guards and shooting guards he was playing with. It was great.
OK – let’s talk Snowfall before you go. It’s the final season and some characters won’t make it. Of the following, who will and who will not?
Okoro: Let’s do it.
Okoro: He’ll live.
Okoro: I don’t like Teddy. But I feel like he’s too smart. I want him to go, but I think he’s too smart.
Okoro: He’s definitely gonna go.
Okoro: He’s gonna go. Franklin’s gonna get him shot up.
Okoro: She’s gonna go, too.
Okoro: She’s gonna get caught in a crossfire.
Okoro: I like him. And it’s gonna be sad. But he’s gonna go.