CLEVELAND (AP) — The Cavaliers’ plan, crafted last summer by the team’s front office and coaching staff, called for growth this season.
Not this much. Not this soon, anyway.
It was supposed to be another year of rebuilding, of developing the team’s core of young, talented players, of improving chemistry. And if things bounced their way, maybe they could earn a spot in the NBA’s Play-In tournament.
Well, circumstances have changed. Big time.
A 22-win, tough-to-watch team last season and forecast by the experts and Las Vegas oddsmakers to be only slightly better than that, Cleveland is 17-12 and currently holding the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference.
Didn’t see the turnaround coming, did you? No one did.
In this stunning start, the Cavs have dominated teams with a defensive charge led by 20-year-old rookie forward Evan Mobley, who is altering shots as well as the trajectory of a franchise that has longed to break free from LeBron James’ grip.
“I don’t think people are going to say this, but I think everybody is a little surprised,” Cavs center Jarrett Allen said with a little hesitation following Monday’s 105-94 win over the Miami Heat, Cleveland’s fourth straight victory and eighth in 10 games. “It’s just the nature of what we’re doing.
“We’re playing excellent basketball. We’re playing above everybody’s standards, playing together as a team. We’re doing everything we need to do to win, and it’s working. I think we’re surprising a lot of people.”
The element of surprise, however, is fading.
With every double-digit win — Cleveland’s last eight victories have each been by at least 11 points — and whether at home or on the road, this group of Cavaliers, who have bought in to coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s philosophies, is gaining confidence along with some well-earned respect across the league.
“This is not a flash in the pan, what they’re doing,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said before the Cavs beat his team for the second time in 11 days. “They are committed to an identity, and J.B. has done a great job building that defensively.
“That’s key because when you’re having an off-night shooting, you always have something you can bank on defensively.”
Yep, like a team pulled from the scrapbook of the NBA’s past, the Cavs are relying on their defense to win. That’s not to say they don’t value offense or lack scorers, but everything starts for Cleveland on the defensive end.
The Cavs entered Tuesday’s action allowing 101.9 points per game, second in the league to Golden State. Monday was the 12th time this season they’ve held an opponent under 100 points.
Bickerstaff has found something with a starting lineup featuring the 7-foot Mobley, 6-11 Allen and 7-foot Lauri Markkanen, a group of tall ballers some Cavs fans have taken to calling “Tower City,” after one of the city’s downtown areas.
“That size is causing trouble for teams in the way that we defend and how hard we play as well,” said Kevin Love, who after all his ups and downs with Cleveland is the lone player left from the James-led 2016 championship team. “That is definitely gaining us respect around the league.”
Mobley’s impact can’t be overstated in speeding the Cavs’ turnaround.
The No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft, Mobley plays like a 10-year veteran and he’s only getting better. He’s averaging 13.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.8 blocks, was named the league’s top rookie for October and November and is the clear frontrunner for rookie of the year honors.
He has changed the Cavs’ identity. It’s no coincidence they went 0-4 while he was out with an elbow sprain.
“He’s special,” said 31-year-old guard Ricky Rubio, whose steadiness, leadership and mentoring of Darius Garand since arriving in a trade this summer has also hastened Cleveland’s stunning reversal. “Really mature for his age. He knows how to play the game the right way.”
There is something else about the Cavs, who lost leading scorer Collin Sexton to a season-ending knee injury last month. They’re sharing the ball, and the glory.
On any given night, there’s a different scoring leader. Cleveland has seven players averaging in double figures, and on Monday it was Love’s turn to shine as he poured in 23 points — all after halftime.
The 33-year-old is playing with renewed joy after being slowed by injuries the past two seasons. Love has embraced his role coming off the bench, yet another sign of this teams’ willingness to sacrifice.
“We really celebrate each other,” he said. “You don’t get this often. We have something that is bigger than ourselves, and that has given us all hope that we can make something special happen here. We feel it.”
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) December 14, 2021