For just about nearly every young, talented team with the makings of something greater, there comes a breakout moment.
Stephen Curry’s 54-point game at the Garden in 2013 not-so-quietly raised the ceiling of what might be possible with Golden State, which broke the 50-win mark the following season before winning it all one year after that. Ja Morant and the young Grizzlies — now a force — took the painful experience of losing a play-in game in the 2020 bubble before going on the road and taking down the Warriors on that stage last year to earn the West’s last spot.
All of which brings us to this year’s Cavs — a club that, as LeBron James’s homecoming thoroughly illustrated Monday night, is trying to establish itself as something more than the first decent Cleveland roster in two decades that James wasn’t a part of. Monday’s 131–120 loss to the Lakers notwithstanding, these Cavs — 41–31 and fighting to avoid being in the East’s play-in — own the NBA’s fifth-best defense and had surprisingly led their conference in net rating for the vast majority of the season, up until early last month. They even had two All-Stars when the game was played in Cleveland in February.
No one saw any of this happening this quickly for the Cavs. But now that they’re here, they’re still looking to seize their moment, just like the Warriors and the Grizzlies before them, to step out of James’s ever-present shadow and create a legacy of their own.
“[Our defense] was terrible. We did not compete at the level that we needed to compete at tonight to win this game. These are all learning experiences that we’ve talked about, and we got caught up in the show, “Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff told reporters Monday, referencing the spectacle surrounding James’s return, in which he had a 38-point, 11-rebound, 12-assist triple double. “Instead of doing the things we needed to do and focus on the bigger picture of the task we had at hand, we allowed this moment to overtake us.” (The Cavs also dropped a road game to the Lakers back in October.)
Still, the baby that’s been this season can’t be thrown out with the Cavs’ bathwater. Even after Monday’s disappointing defeat, Cleveland has won 18 of its last 24 games at home, nothing short of impressive considering how many injuries the still-banged-up team has battled.
Darius Garland, one of the team’s All-Stars, had 29 points and 17 assists in the loss, his eighth-straight contest with 20 points or more. In some instances, you can see glimpses of Steve Nash’s game because of how patiently Garland slithers through the paint, surveying the floor for an open big to dump the ball off to. In others, he resembles Damian Lillard with his willingness to pull up from deep out of the high pick-and-roll. Evan Mobley’s game prompts comparisons to Kevin Garnett, and here’s the wild thing: They don’t seem far-fetched at all because of how talented the kid is, both as a playmaker and as a defender who can roam and cover up other players’ mistakes on the back end. He still deserves to be this season’s Rookie of the Year, even as Cade Cunningham’s had a fantastic end-of-season run to solidify himself as Detroit’s franchise player and Scottie Barnes continues to hound would-be scorers while often playing a hybrid role within Toronto’s forward-filled offense.
Center Jarrett Allen, the other All-Star, fractured a finger shortly after the break and will likely miss the rest of the regular season, a considerable blow given what he means to the team’s defense. (He’s held shooters nearly 15 percentage points beneath their averages at the rim this season, the best mark in the league among rim protectors who defend at least four shots there per night.) But playing shorthanded has become par for the course for Cleveland. Guards Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio were lost for the season, while Rajon Rondo’s been in and out of the lineup with injuries since being traded to the Cavs. Lauri Markkanen’s missed considerable time, and wing Caris LeVert did, too, after joining the club via trade last month. And none of this even gets into the fact that Cleveland was arguably the club most impacted by COVID-19 — both before omicron and during the variant’s spread.
Still, the club’s been one of the most fun to watch all year, with a mix of high-end young talent (Garland, Mobley and Allen), weirdness (they usually start three players who are nearly 7 feet tall), grit (Isaac Okoro) and rejuvenation (Kevin Love, who last year sulked and looked like he wanted out of Cleveland, seems to love this group and has been solid off the team’s bench.)
But now, the question is whether the Cavs can go beyond just being fun and finish the job by making the playoffs and using them as a springboard for next season, like Morant and the Grizzlies have. Cleveland’s next two contests, against the Raptors — who trail the Cavs by one game for that all-important sixth spot — and the Bulls, have massive play-in implications and may help to clarify how close this franchise is to taking the next step.
Meat and potatoes: Good reads here and elsewhere
The Celtics — winners in nine of 10 and 20 of their last 23 — continue to be a red-hot torch that blazes anything and anyone in their path. They just swept a four-game trip in which they won the first three contests by double digits — including an absolute demolition in Denver — then won the fourth in Oklahoma City on Monday by nine. Michael Pina wrote last week on their deadline acquisition of guard Derrick White, whose subtle skills and unselfish tendencies already appear to be aiding a team that’s quickly become a title contender after a curiously slow start to the campaign.
Like Boston, the Suns have also been sawing through their competition — even as Chris Paul’s been out with a fractured right thumb since play resumed after the All-Star Game. Phoenix’s dominance might be enough for the average fan to have forgotten that Suns owner Robert Sarver is still being investigated over allegations that he fostered a hostile work environment by using racist and misogynstic language, among other things.
Scroll to Continue
A group of social justice activists, however, has not forgotten and is growing increasingly frustrated that no outcome has been announced, despite the investigation having kicked off in November. Howard Beck dug into that, reporting that the American Sports Accountability Project sent Adam Silver a letter earlier in the month calling for the expulsion of Sarver, who also owns the WNBA’s Mercury. (The league said the investigation — being carried out by the Wachtell Lipton law firm — is still underway. ESPN reported earlier in the month that more than 300 people had been interviewed for it.)
In case you’re looking for good analysis on teams that won’t be in the postseason: a piece from Jonathan Macri from Knicks Film School on Julius Randle’s latest head-scratching behavior and the question of whether coach Tom Thibodeau is doing enough to hold him accountable. And a recent one from the Orlando Sentinel‘s Khobi Price, detailing the vastly improved playmaking by Wendell Carter Jr., who not only had a career-high 30 points to go with 16 boards Sunday but has also averaged 20 and 12 since the break. (We wrote before about how the Magic’s youngsters — particularly the starters — were showing out earlier this season.)
Lastly, as teams play their final 10 or so games, you’ll likely begin seeing them rest their players — both to safeguard them from injury, and, in some cases, to position themselves the way they’d like in the standings with an extra loss or two, for matchup purposes.
Then you have the Nets — clinging to a one-game cushion for eighth place in the East — with their part-time point guard in Kyrie Irving and their still-out-of-commission point forward in Ben Simmons. Barring a change in New York’s City private sector vaccine mandate, Irving will be allowed to play in only one of Brooklyn’s final eight games of the campaign, as the club fights to hold onto its less-treacherous play-in path. That doesn’t even address the scenario with Simmons, who’s still yet to suit up this season and now is beginning to look like a question mark for the postseason, as well. Newsbreaker Shams Charania reported that the Nets, who initially set a tentative March 18 return date for Simmons, are now uncertain about when he may return to play. He took an epidural last week for a herniated disk, Charania reported, but his back di lui continues to bother him.
Things to watch, this week and beyond
If you go back to the beginning of the season, a time when a lot of people were caught off guard by how competent the Cavs looked and how good the Bulls were, the conversations quickly shifted to whether we were witnessing a return of the Warriors’ dominance. Steph Curry swiftly became an MVP front-runner, and the club seemingly had nowhere to go but up as Klay Thompson and James Wiseman were expected to make their returns.
Now, though, a very different picture has emerged. While Thompson’s made it back and Draymond finally returned from a 29-game injury absence, now Curry is out for at least the next couple of weeks after Boston’s Marcus Smart collided into his left foot, spraining a ligament.
The two best teams in the West this season have performed surprisingly well this season in their star players’ absences. The Grizzlies have gone 14–2 without Morant, while the Suns have logged marks of 10–4 and 8–3 without Chris Paul and Devin Booker, respectively. The Warriors, by contrast, are 2–5 this season when Curry doesn’t play.
With that in mind, it’s suddenly realistic that the third-place Warriors — just 2.5 games ahead of the Jazz — could fall in the standings and end up having to play Luka Dončić and the Mavs in the first round. (The Mavericks have been playing extremely well, with elite-level defense, for a while now, in case you aren’t aware.) And hell, even if things hold firm, with Golden State’s managing to hold onto the third spot, the Warriors would likely end up drawing either reigning MVP Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets or the upstart Timberwolves, who’ve also been red hot lately, playing better ball than just about anyone since the All-Star break.
This isn’t to say the Warriors are or should be afraid of any one club. For a core that’s won three championships — and that has a bolstered supporting cast — there’s no need to be. Still, that core hasn’t had much on-court time together at all just yet.
It had been 1,005 days since Curry, Green and Thompson played together in a game when the three of them suited up against Washington last week. (Curry wasted no time feeling right at home, going off for 47 points as Green’s playmaking made space for him.) But then, just a quarter and a half into Game No. 2, Curry got hurt, wrecking what might have been the team’s last real chance this season to reestablish the on-court cohesion that made them lethal before.
The Warriors are holding out hope that their superstar can make it back with a couple of games left in the campaign — an opportunity to set the rhythm in a less tense environment.
But if he can’t, or if Green or Thompson gets banged up in the meantime, it perhaps leaves a little bit more of an advantage for a treacherous team like Denver, or a hot club like Minnesota or Dallas, to match up in the first round. Rust can come off quickly for Curry, and we’ve seen that in a playoff setting before. (Just ask Portland.) Yet with Thompson and Green having just gotten back, plus the potential star power and strength of the competition this time, it could make the postseason an uncomfortable place for Curry to apply the WD-40.
Thanks for reading The Playmaker. Feel free to forward this email to a friend or tell them to sign up at SI.com/newsletters. If you have any specific questions, just reply to this email or send a note to email@example.com and I may answer it in a future edition.
More SI Daily Covers:
• Behind Ja Morant’s Sudden Ascent to NBA Superstardom
• The Real Short Lives of a New NBA Jersey
• Nikola Jokic Gets Lost Among the Stars. And He’s OK With That.