While attending the Cleveland Cavaliers practice, a lot of focus was on their potential playoffs matchup against the New York Knicks. Considering they clinched the playoffs a few days ago, that makes sense. Their next regular season game is oddly enough against New York, who is their likely first round playoff opponent. Some sting has been taken out of the matchup now that Julius Randle has been ruled out for at least two weeks, but it’s still a potential playoff preview considering Randle might also miss at least some of the first round.
The Knicks Matchup
All three post practice interviewees faced multiple questions about the upcoming game against the Knicks, and how it might affect the playoff picture considering it’s almost guaranteed to be the first round matchup. While all three (J.B. Bickerstaff, Lamar Stevens and Darius Garland) acknowledged that the Knicks matchup has some extra oomph to it due to the playoff implications, all three also emphasized that they wouldn’t prepare for or treat it any differently. Bickerstaff mentioned that no matter how things play out they still have a week beforehand to really do preparation for whoever their first round opponent may be. That week also helps with roster management decisions in regards to rest, but Bickerstaff was adamant those discussions would only happen after positions are clinched.
The defensive end came up a lot, as it tends to do in practices as guys always like to bring up their effort and work on that side of things (no matter how true that might be). For the Cavaliers though, it’s particularly salient considering they are the top team in defensive rating. Having a DPOY candidate like Evan Mobley helps with that, and all three guys were asked about Mobley’s case for the award. Garland gave a wry “just watch the games” answer, and all three mentioned his switch capability and outlier length.
Stevens even brought some advanced analytics into it, bringing up that Mobley is tops in the league in Defensive Win Shares. Mobley is a distant fifth in DPOY betting odds (+8000) but there’s no doubt Mobley is one of the best defenders in the NBA whether or not he wins. His case is most likely harmed by the fact that the Cavaliers as a whole plays good defense. Jarrett Allen is an anchor in his own right, and Garland said one of the biggest points of improvement for him and Mitchell this season was to get better on defense, which is true.
That defensive buy-in is especially prevalent in OT games, where the Cavaliers have an undefeated record. When asked, all three Cavaliers said their advantage in overtime is on the defensive end. They believe they can lock it down whenever they want (“stops on demand” was a common phrase), and when you condense the game into five minutes, the defensive intensity they can bring becomes magnified. Combine that with a bunch of guys that can get their own shot leads to a 7-0 OT record.
Of course, a lot of the conversation was about the upcoming playoffs, and a predictable talking point was regarding Donovan Mitchell’s wealth of playoff experience compared to everyone else on the young Cavaliers. The main message Mitchell gave Stevens and Garland was that the playoffs come down to the details and the little things. For Garland, defenses will be getting much more creative in their defensive looks, so taking care of the ball and making the right passes is key. That’s especially the case when the pace of the game slows down, which it will during the playoffs. Luckily, the Cavaliers are no stranger to playing it slow considering they have the slowest pace in the league right now. Stevens said they are used the slow game due to their focus on defense and that it helps when they run two bigs. They can still score when things slow down to their abundant offensive talent, so they aren’t worried about that end.
The Darius Garland-Donovan Mitchell relationship has been a talking point all season, and it continued today. Garland said it was an adjustment, saying his mindset before Mitchell came was “shoot all the shots I can” and that he thought he “would have the ball in his hands 99% of the time.” Obviously a transition needed to be made but Garland said it’s been easy. He’s not sure why, but it is. When Mitchell is hot, Garland defers with no issues, and vice-versa. Given their success so far, you can’t say he’s wrong. Bickerstaff made a point to say that Garland has not taken any steps back as a player as they incorporate Mitchell, they are simply adding another piece. Numbers-wise that holds up, as Garland hasn’t seen any real drop off in counting stats, and his efficiency has gone up.
Finally, just from casual observation around the facility, Mobley’s practice focus is on expanding his range. He shot mid-ranges and threes the entire time the media was in the facility. Straight on, Mobley was quite good, making most of his attempts (although things are easier in a quiet gym and being fed balls in rhythm) regardless of distance.
When Mobley switched to the corner, he struggled much more. He seemed to try to put extra arc on the ball due to the shorter distance and was less than successful at it. That seemed to weigh on him, as Mobley seemed very frustrated after any miss. Still, Mobley’s desire to improve on one of his offensive weaknesses is encouraging. If he can add a reliable outside shot there’s not much he can’t do.
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