Catching a Break

Catching a Break

Wrapping Up the Wine & Gold's Frenizied First Half Before the All-Star Break

by Joe Gabriele (@CavsJoeG)
2/16/22 | Cavs.com

All-Star Weekend marks the unofficial half-way point of the NBA season, but in reality, we’re well past that point. The Cavaliers electrifying 2021-22 campaign will actually shift into the home stretch when teams return from this weekend’s festivities in Cleveland.

When the Wine & Gold return from the Break, they’ll have just 24 games remaining in the regular season and are locked squarely in the Conference’s Playoff picture after surprising the league with a 35-23 mark at the turn.

But as J.B. Bickerstaff’s young squad has learned in its previous two games before the Break, life is vastly different as the hunted than it is as the hunters. For teams who’ve already tasted the postseason – like the Sixers and Hawks – the rubber has hit the road, and the Cavaliers will need to buckle up for an increased intensity over the final two dozen games.

While the city of Cleveland prepares for what promises to be an incredible All-Star Weekend – with Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen playing in the actual midseason classic on Sunday night – here’s a quick look back on how the Wine and Gold’s thrilling season got to this point …

Kevin Love has been a tremendous veteran presence for the young Cavaliers this year -- both on and off the floor.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE Getty Images

1. Beating the Bug -- Even during the Cavaliers dream season, they’ve not been immune to the injury bug. They’ve just figured out a way to overcome it.

Collin Sexton – the team’s top scorer over the past two seasons – was limited to just 11 games this year, tearing the meniscus in his left knee against New York and undergoing surgery that will sideline him for the season.

With Sexton on the shelf, Ricky Rubio’s role increased, and the 11th-year man proved immediately how much he had left in the tank. But 36 games into his first season in Cleveland, the 31-year-old also suffered a season-ending injury, suffering a torn ACL in his left knee during a loss in New Orleans. Rubio was sidelined for the season and later included in a Deadline deal to acquire Caris LeVert from Indiana.

While those two major injuries have been a major blow for the Wine & Gold, they’ve still been relatively fortunate so far this season. Lauri Markkanen suffered a high ankle sprain on January 22 against OKC that’s sidelined him for the previous 11 games before the Break, but “the Finnisher” should be back in the lineup early in the season’s second half.

2. Love in the Air -- Kevin Love’s previous three seasons in Cleveland were difficult for the five-time All-Star, who was limited to just 103 appearances over those years. But in 2021-22, the 14th-year man discovered a career renaissance and has been reborn off the bench – and will receive serious Sixth Man of the Year considerations this spring.

Love – who in the previous game before the Break became just the fourth player in NBA history to amass 14,000 points, 8,000 rebounds and 1,400 three-pointers – has been outstanding on and off the floor this season, re-emerging as a veteran team leader while averaging 13.9 points and 7.2 boards as a reserve.

In 48 appearances off the bench this year, Love has tallied 10 20-point outings and a 35-point, 11-rebound effort on New Year’s Eve against Atlanta. Love also has 10 double-doubles off the bench this season and ranks fourth in the NBA, having taken a team-high 17 charges.

But as big as the numbers are, Love’s youthful enthusiasm and renewed passion has changed the attitude of the squad.

3. Go Big or Go Home -- Cavaliers legend Brad Daugherty makes no bones about it – admitting that he thought the Cavaliers starting a jumbo lineup of Jarrett Allen, Lauri Markkanen and rookie Evan Mobley was insane in today’s NBA. And he wasn’t the only one.

But J.B. Bickerstaff’s plan worked right from the jump. Opponents have struggled to match up against three seven-footers along a single frontline, and when Markkanen returns in the second half, the Cavaliers will go right back to their big man trifecta.

Allen has had an All-Star-caliber season and his invitation to join the Eastern Conference squad validates that. Mobley has been a rookie revelation on both ends, especially on defense, where he’s already shown an innate talent. Markkanen has been solid, but as a seven-footer at the 3, provides huge matchup difficulties.

The Cavs are 17-11 when Markkanen scores in double-figures. They’re 25-5 when Jarrett Allen nets a double-double and 10-3 when Mobley does the same.

4. Shooting Stars -- The Cavaliers haven’t had two All-Stars on the same squad since LeBron James and Kevin Love made it back in 2017-18. The difference between those two and Cleveland’s current stars is that Garland just turned 22 and Allen is 23.

Garland has been simply tremendous in his third year out of Vanderbilt. He leads the Cavaliers in scoring (20.3ppg) and assists (8.0) – the latter good for 7th in the NBA. Garland ranks 4th in the NBA with a .909 mark from the charity stripe and is one of just two players – along with last year’s MVP, Nikola Jokic – averaging at least 19.0 points and 7.0 assists while shooting at least 46 percent from the floor.

Garland also led the Wine and Gold to an 11-4 mark in the month of January – joining James Harden as the only players to average at least 20.0 points and 10.0 assists in the month. Over that stretch, Garland posted seven 20-point games and a 32-point effort in a win over the Spurs.

Allen, in his 5th year out of Texas, has been almost as good – headed into the Break ranked 6th in the NBA with 30 double-doubles and 2nd in field goal percentage at .665. Allen connected on 31 of his first 38 field goal attempts this season and continues to be the team’s most efficient offensive weapon.

In the four games after initially being left off the Eastern Conference All-Star squad, Allen averaged 20.3 points and 16.8 rebounds per and his 67 blocked shots on the season rank second on the team – only behind rookie sensation, Evan Mobley.

5. Fantastic Freshman -- The Cavaliers knew Evan Mobley would be very good when they drafted him No. 3 overall out of USC last summer. But did anyone realistically think he’d be this good, this fast?

The soft-spoken Southern Californian hit the ground running in Cleveland – netting double-figure scoring in each of his first six games, netting double-doubles in four of his first nine. Since then, he’s only gotten better.

Mobley heads to the All-Star Break leading his class in field goal percentage (.502), rebounds per game (8.0) and blocks per game (1.65). Among his class, he ranks 4th in scoring (14.9) and 2nd in both double-doubles (13) and minutes (34.0).

6. Getting Defensive -- In the seasons leading up to the current campaign, the Cavaliers defense had been porous – and their record reflected that. But they’ve put those woes behind them so far this year.

Even after surrendering 124 points in their Tuesday night loss in Atlanta, the Wine and Gold head into the Break with the league’s top scoring defensive, allowing just 102.5 points per. The Cavaliers are top five in opponents field goal percentage (.442), top 10 in three-point percentage (.340) and no team shuts down opponents while keeping them off the line better than Cleveland, committing just 16.8 fouls per game.

The Wine and Gold has held 23 foes under the century mark – their best team effort since the 2016 Championship team – and ranks 7th in contested shots per game. During a stretch in November-December, Cleveland held 13 straight opponents to under 40 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

7. Just Win, Baby -- The Cavaliers have been outstanding at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse this year – taking a seven-game win streak into the All-Star Break and sitting on an 18-9 mark at home. But they’ve also been very good on the road, with a 17-14 record, including the previous two losses this past week.

But these Cavaliers have found out ways to win anywhere and under any circumstances. They’re 7-3 against their own Division so far this season, including a 20-13 mark against the Eastern Conference. They’re 15-10 against Western Conference foes this year, including a 9-6 mark against those teams in their own gym. Cleveland wrapped up their recent six-game West Coast trip with a 5-1 mark.

This year, the Cavs have had winning streaks of at least four games on five different occasions – with a six-game win streak in early December and a five-game run one month later. Cleveland’s longest losing streak was five games, followed by a three-game skid to end the calendar year. Aside from those two skeins, they haven’t lost more than two in a row on any occasion.

8. Role With It -- The Cavaliers have gotten plenty from their All-Stars and potential Rookie of the Year, but what’s made them what they are is a total team effort up and down the roster.

Cedi Osman has had one of his best years as a pro – averaging double-figures in a consistent role off the bench. The 5th-year man – who’s topped the 20-point plateau on six occasions this year – has been one of the squad’s emotional leaders.

Lamar Stevens and Dean Wade have proven to be malleable members of the squad – able to bounce in and out of the starting lineup and always ready to contribute when their numbers have been called. Cleveland is 14-11 with Wade in the starting lineup; 6-2 with Stevens.

Isaac Okoro has had a relatively quiet offensive season, but he speaks loudest with his play on the defensive end – once again drawing the toughest assignment on a nightly basis. The sophomore from Auburn has topped the 20-point mark on just two occasions this year, but his tenacity on the other end of the floor is a major reason for Cleveland’s top offensive ranking.

9. Call for Reinforcements -- When injuries looked like they might derail the Wine and Gold’s dream season, the front office stepped up and plugged the dam at every turn – whether it was bolstering the point guard spot with a deal to acquire Rajon Rondo or inking Brandon Goodwin to a deal or swinging for the fences to land Caris LeVert just before the Trade Deadline.

Goodwin and Rondo have been very good as Darius Garland continues to nurse a sore lower back while LeVert, who dropped 22 points in his first start as a Cavalier in a win over Indy, is still trying to find his rhythm.

When he does – and when Lauri Markkanen returns – the Cavaliers will continue their unlikely journey towards the Eastern Conference Playoffs. And if the first half is any indication, J.B. Bickerstaff’s youngbloods could prove to be a difficult out once they arrive.