Late Monday afternoon, the Brooklyn Nets trailed the Cleveland Cavaliers by three points with less than 30 seconds remaining. But with possession of the ball and James Harden and Kyrie Irving on their side, they still had a chance. Or, at least, they did until Lauri Markkanen smothered Harden’s drive, forcing a bad pass that Isaac Okoro took the other way for an uncontested, sealed dunk.
After a few cursory free throws from Kevin Love, the Cavaliers left the floor with a 114-107 victory over the preseason title favorites. Even though Kevin Durant did not play due to a knee injury, it was still one of the most impressive results of the season for the Cavaliers, who have now won five in a row to move to 27- 18 – just two games away. of first place in the Eastern Conference.
No one saw that kind of turnaround coming for the Cavaliers — their total preseason winning projection by Caesars Sportsbook was just 25.5 — but they’ve proven time and time again that they’re a real problem in ballast. That’s largely down to their elite defense, which ranks third in the league (105 defensive ratings) and showed again on Monday.
In the fourth quarter, in particular, the Cavs were stellar at that end of the field. They held the Nets to 19 of 6-for-20 points from the field, which was only the 12th time all season the Nets had scored less than 20 points in a quarter, per Stathead. Even more impressively, after Harden tied the game at 105-105 with 3:43 left, the Cavs allowed just two runs the rest of the way.
“It’s a significant victory for us against a top team,” Cavs head coach JB Bickerstaff said. “The most impressive thing is to keep a team like that to 19 points in the fourth that lets you know what you are capable of defensively.”
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Leading that side, as he usually does, was rookie great Evan Mobley. With his rare combination of length, athleticism, timing and game savvy, he’s already one of the best defensive rookies we’ve ever seen, and his exploits have been well documented. Against the Nets, he was everywhere. He played the entire fourth quarter and, in addition to four points and four rebounds, he modified a number of shots.
Watch here in the pick-and-roll, as he sits in a position to stop Irving’s drive, then uses his long arms to come out and challenge the jumper. Irving thought he had created a lot of space, but Mobley nearly blocked and forced the miss.
Later, Mobley showed off his abilities at the rim. This time, Irving used his quickness to get around Jarrett Allen and into the paint. It looked like he was going to get a layup, but Mobley came in just in time to go straight and miss Irving flawlessly.
Two completely different games that show why Mobley and the Cavs are so hard to score. If you put Mobley in the pick-and-roll, he’s long and mobile enough that it’s rarely a serious lag. But if you execute actions away from him to try and get him out of the game, he has the awareness and the ability to clean things up from the back anyway.
As good as he was, Mobley wasn’t the only one making plays in the fourth quarter. Isaac Okoro, the No. 5 overall pick in last year’s draft, doesn’t get much attention but is a terrific defender in his own right. In addition to stealing and dunking in the final seconds, Okoro was giving Irving tantrums.
The seven-time All-Star tried to isolate himself against Okoro several times, but was unsuccessful. Here’s a perfect example of late play. Okoro closes to prevent the 3-pointer, cuts the drive, keeps his hands high, and forces Irving to lean hard as he steps away from the basket.
The fact that none of these clips feature Allen, who is eighth in rebounding (10.9) and 12th in blocks (1.4) in the league, and possibly heading to his first All-Star Game, speaks to the depth of defensive talent on this list. . In a league that has been steadily shrinking, the Cavs have zigzagged and feature three seven-footers (Allen, Mobley and Markkanen) in their starting lineup. As a result, they clean the glass and leave nothing on the edge; they limit their opponents to a league-low 58% in the restricted area.
Questions remain over whether they can still score enough, especially with Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio out for the season, but with their defense operating at this level, no one will want to face the Cavaliers come playoff time.