Scrappy Cavs fighting through flurry of injuries as Darius Garland, others step up
There's a different feeling with the Cavaliers this season, one of a team hoping to contend for a playoff spot well ahead of schedule.
The Cavs' overreaching identity has become one of a scrappy young team not satisfied with another season in the lottery, but the on-court identity has had to constantly shift as injuries have taken their toll and shifted the rotation time and time again.
Isaac Okoro missed time but has since returned. Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markkanen did the same. Kevin Love was out of the lineup for a bit. Evan Mobley, who seemed to be making a strong Rookie of the Year case, is sidelined for the next few weeks. Collin Sexton is out for the year. Cedi Osman and Lamar Stevens are still working their way back.
Through it, the Cavs fought their way into the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. But they have also had to adjust to a number of different rotation combinations through the first quarter of the season. The Cavs have played big lineups. They've played small lineups. They've needed rotational backups to step into larger roles. They've needed scoring production to be replaced.
The key term for how the Cavs have survived it thus far is scrap.
"It’s their togetherness and commitment to one another and how we want to play. Like, these dudes scrap," coach J.B. Bickerstaff said Monday night after a 117-112 loss the Brooklyn Nets, the Cavs fourth consecutive loss. "There’s no circumstance … we get down, they find a way to dig out of it together. We compete our tails off and we share the ball and share the game. I think that’s the identity that we’re working to create and these guys have bought into it.
"I think that’s the most impressive thing is we’ve seen ourselves be in adverse situations but we haven’t seen anybody vary from that and go off and do it on their own. They’ve all tried to figure out how they can best do it in their role and help the team because they’re committed to it.”
For example, the Cavs acquired Markkanen to provide some offensive range and allow the Cavs to play with a bigger lineup if he's at the 3. But that hasn't always been possible with Markkanen, Mobley, Love and Allen all missing time at different points this season. Markkanen's absence forced Dean Wade into an expanded role.
Wade went from normally playing about 25 minutes a game to logging 35, 37 and 40 minutes, respectively, in the Cavs' past three games.
"When we made that decision to go with Lauri at the 3 and made the decision to play bigger, Dean Wade’s ability to step in and bring similar things as Lauri at that spot gives us an opportunity while Evan is out to stay pretty consistent in our approach," Bickerstaff said. "I think it’s an identity that we’ve formed that's kind of counter to where everybody else has been going with the smaller lineups. But our big guys’ versatility has allowed us to stay pretty consistent in that.”
The Cavs went contrarian to the general league-wide trend that favored athleticism, outside scoring and wings. They gave center Allen a $100 million extension and used the No. 3 pick on the 7-foot Mobley, committing to two key big men for the long term. Markkanen, another 7-footer with the ability to stretch the floor, allowed them to go with an even bigger lineup, but that hasn't been the case lately. They've had to adapt to the healthy players available day by day. As the lineup slowly returns to health, and with Wade offering some depth, it hasn't been abandoned, either.
"I mean, I like it, to be honest with you, and I think it helps us," Bickerstaff said of the bigger lineups. "But Dean’s ability to kind of be a little versatile in there has given us a little bit of that consistency, being able to play that way. Obviously it’s not the seven footers across the board, but it still helps us defensively to have that amount of size on the floor when he’s playing the 3.
"To his credit, he’s had to have some very difficult matchups, obviously last week he’s got [Kevin] Durant and those types of matchups, but it helps us clog the paint more, it helps us be a better rebounding team, which is an area where I think we need to keep improving. It allows us to switch things and then keep things in front of us, so I think we found things that I think works for us, and we’re going to continue to do it."
Another product of the injury situation has been Darius Garland's surge in scoring. Garland has averaged 17.8 points per game this season, only a slight increase over his 17.4 average a year ago. But with Sexton out for the season, Garland has taken on a larger role within the Cavs' offense, scoring at least 21 points in four of the past five games. The Cavs had hoped Garland would come into his own in his third year in the NBA. Sexton's injury just about forced that to happen anyway.
"I think it was our expectation for him coming in this year to continue to improve as a scorer," Bickerstaff said. "We’ve continued to talk to him about being aggressive. I think you’ve seen more of it because his usage has increased with Collin out, but this was something that we wanted from Darius from the beginning. We wanted him to be aggressive. We talked about him shooting more 3s, hunting shots off the ball more, being used off the ball more as a catch-and-shoot guy. So this is kind of what we wanted from Darius."
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Read more about the Cavs at www.beaconjournal.com/sports/cavs. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.
Suns at Cavaliers
Time: 7 p.m. Wednesday
TV: Bally Sports Ohio