Milwaukee – Hours before they travel to cold Milwaukee for their highlight test against the 10-win Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers I put them together as a team and dug in the numbers from the first 13 games.
A little over a week ago, the Cavs were rolling. Eight straight wins. Two against the Eastern Conference champions Celtics. Four opponents held 100 points or less. They climbed to the top of the standings and took those positive vibes to the West Coast as part of a five-way road trip at the start of the season.
How quickly things can turn out.
Cleveland lost three straight to finish the road, and collapsed late in each of those contests. The Cavs then suffered the proverbial “schedule loss” upon returning home, losing their fourth in a row – a result of tired legs, two key absences and a leaky defense. It was an ugly no-show in the first half as All-Star guard Darius Garland was nearly wiped out with an epic performance in the fourth quarter.
Bickerstaff’s goal on Tuesday was to show the stark difference between the team’s metrics over the first nine games and then the last four. Why – and how – did they win so early? What has changed?
The sharp defensive decline stood out the most.
“We need to be better defensively,” Bickerstaff said after Tuesday’s practice at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “There’s no doubt about it. In the last four games we haven’t defended ourselves and teams have pushed us.”
Small sample sizes – convenient or otherwise – are not always the best measure. But over the first nine games, the stingy Kavas ranked as the second-ranked defensive tackle, allowing just 102.9 points per 100 possessions. Opponents shoot just 44.4% from the field (No. 6 in the NBA) and 33.7% from 3-point range (No. 10).
But those scintillating defensive numbers have dimmed during this four-game skid. The game kicked off last Monday against the Clippers — a game in which Cleveland built up a double-digit lead in the final five minutes, setting off a week-long spiral.
Over the last four games, the Cavs have the worst defense in the league. An appalling rating of 122.4. Opponents shoot 52% from the field and 44.5% from outside the arc – ranking last in both categories.
Despite other current questions, including much-discussed late-game struggles and the viability of an unconventional starting lineup, the quickest path to stability is to rediscover their defensive identity.
“Just brushing all the details down,” said Evan Mobley. “We didn’t do the best job of being competitive and getting players off the line and protecting our paint. That’s what we really focused on.”
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A game in Milwaukee presents a lot of challenges. It starts with perennial MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Nicknamed the “Greek freak,” Antetokounmpo does a little bit of everything, and is surrounded by setbacks and capable 3-point shooters that pull bigger defenders off the edge.
However, there are still areas to exploit, especially without All-Star Chris Middleton, who has yet to appear in his first season following off-season wrist surgery. Milwaukee ranks just 23rd in offense.
“If we do things and do them right, we’ll give ourselves a chance,” Bickerstaff said.
The defense job gets a little more difficult without Allen, one of the team’s announcers and legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate who is set to miss his second straight game. Allen, who is currently dealing with a sore ankle and now a non-COVID-related illness, didn’t play on Sunday — a night when the lethargic Cavs gave up 40 points to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first quarter and a season-high 129. the game. Statistically, it was Cleveland’s worst showing at that end of the floor—not coincidentally, it came with Allen’s exclusion.
In the 389 minutes with him on the court, Cleveland posted a defensive rating of 104.9, which would rank first overall. In 250 minutes without him, that number dropped to 111.0 – a mark that would put them in 15th place.
“I mean, Jarrett and I are two of the best defensive personalities I can get around,” Mobley said. “When he’s not there, he’s definitely a little crutch in our defence. But we still have guys who can step up and fill the role. We just have to make some adjustments that we’re not necessarily used to because we’re not used to playing like that. But we can certainly make those adjustments.”
The first is to shift Mobley to the center rather than his natural strength up front. That’s what Bickerstaff did Sunday against a super-sized Minnesota front yard with Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Will Bickerstaff do the same against the even-long Bucks?
Seven-foot-tall Brook Lopez starts at center. He can play both indoors and outdoors, and is able to extend his attack range to the perimeter. Antetokounmpo, 6-foot-11, 242 pounds, is the athletic 4 hopper who creates match problems for any opponent, not to mention potentially losing a pair of his best individual defensive options against him – Allen and Dean Wade, the latter questionable due to knee soreness.
In his 5th starting game of the season, Mobley struggled against a stronger and more experienced Timberwolves duo. He said the positional switch forces him to guard the bigger and bigger positions. This also means that he is more involved in picking and rolling and is not used as often as a weak defender.
Bickerstaff said of Mobley’s role when he played 5 “It’s different. I think it’s good for him to fight both. How are you on the defensive boards? How are you going to come back as the primary edge protector? All those things are different, and I think it’s good for him.”
Defense is supposed to be the backbone of the team. Any potential transformation must begin there.
“They’re a great team,” Mobley said of the Bucks. “They definitely put a lot of pressure on the paint, especially with Giannis. We have to do a great job of protecting our paint and getting back at the shooters as best we can. That’s the challenge. All games are important for sure, but some feel more important than others, especially this one. It’s our first time meeting them this year and they’re off to a great start. It’s definitely going to be a challenge and we’ll try to take it for them.”
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