How one play tells us the Cavs are back, and will matter for a decade
BY DAVID THORPE
As possessions go, it seems rather forgettable. A blocked shot before a made basket by a team that ended up losing–no big whoop. But one play, late in a game on Sunday, convinced me the Cavaliers are back.
The Cavaliers have won 60 games over the last three years combined. They are in the middle of the East standings, behind the Charlotte Hornets, and need to fight to make the playoffs. Maybe this seems silly to project.
In theory, terrible teams get great draft pick slots and use them to climb back into relevance. In practice, it does not happen often. (The Pelicans, Wolves, and Kings know what I mean.) But thanks to some good draft fortune and a wise trade, the Cavs, without a top-two pick on the roster, are armed with the best 23-and-under trio, and look like a playoff team. They have a ton of upside. Buckle up Cavs fans, this decade is going to be a blast.
If I sound overzealous, it’s because I saw something in that fourth-quarter possession. Fearlessness, poise, athleticism, and, most importantly, heaping amounts of talent.
Please click these links, here’s part one, to watch one of my favorite plays of the young season. In a tie game with three and a half minutes left, the Jazz showed two defenders to Darius Garland (drafted fifth in 2019) above the top of the key as Evan Mobley (drafted third in 2021) appeared to be ready to set a screen for him. Garland, who finished with 31 points and five assists, deserved that attention, and had just hit a big 3 against single coverage two minutes prior.
Wisely, Mobley slipped to the nail, creating space for Garland to lob the ball. That allowed the preternatural 20-year-old Mobley to initiate a four-on-three attack. With center Jarrett Allen (acquired via trade) in the dunk spot, Mobley jumped to catch the lob, landed, and feeling Rudy Gobert on him, immediately launched another lob. Mobley made the perfect read, but his execution was a few inches off. He didn’t account for Gobert’s 9-9 standing reach. He simply threw the ball too flat. Gobert deflected it, as he has done thousands of times before. There is no better defender in the world at controlling two guys simultaneously.
The ball seemed to head over Mobley’s outstretched arms, but just as Gobert acted quickly and nimbly to deflect the pass, so too did Mobley in bouncing up to grab the loose ball and gather it in. Knowing the shot clock was winding down, with Gobert between him and the rim, Mobley did with his shot what he should have done with the pass–lofted a lovely and high shot from seven feet away, just over Gobert’s fingers. The ball nestled between the rim as it rolled around 340 degrees of it and … BOUNCED OUT!
Allen wisely positioned himself in perfect tip-in position and leapt to do just that. But, again, Rudy messed it all up. There is a simple rule in rebounding that works in all situations, “if you can’t grab the ball, do whatever you can to not let the bad guys get it.” Just as Allen went to tip it in and give the Cavs the lead, Gobert tipped the ball away from him and towards an open space near the left elbow. It was an incredible play, not only did he prevent the easy tip but he basically tipped the ball to himself. It’s something smart coaches work with players on often, a “self-tip” is a great weapon on both ends of the court. Gobert landed after his tip and immediately raced after the ball, which was his plan from the moment he looked to knock the rebound away from Allen. But Mobley was not finished, and was about to create brilliance.
After blowing a wide-open lob and then missing a short shot, many young players might have taken a moment off to feel bummed. Mobley, though, was trying to win a basketball game. He never took his eyes off the ball and as soon as Gobert tipped the ball away, Mobley set out after it. Gobert had a slight geographical advantage—he was slightly inside of Mobley. And Gobert, the wise veteran he is, knew Mobley couldn’t get to the ball without fouling as long as Gobert was in front of him. Which is why Gobert used his left arm to try to squeak out just a few inches of leverage ahead of the rookie. Live, even on film in slow motion, Gobert looked like he was going to win the race. And then, magic.
As I’ve written here before, I don’t get impressed by fast people easily. But Mobley shocked me with speed. And with his thinking. Mobley had two options at this moment, dive for the loose ball, or try to tip the ball away from the hard-chasing Gobert. A dive was fraught with risk, he was running fast after just two steps and could easily have slid after grabbing the ball and been called for traveling. Or, given that he was behind Gobert, he might have taken Gobert out and been called for a foul.
But tipping it before Gobert arrived meant he had to somehow stretch his arm and hand out before Gobert did the same. He would have no time to really control the ball. Mike Conley, Gobert’s teammate, waited for Gobert to reach out and get a finger on the ball just enough to guide it to him. Or perhaps he thought he’d beat both seven footers to it. Conley, whose dad is in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, is very quick, and made the same snap judgment I did as the play happened–Gobert was going to win the race. So Conley didn’t dive either.
Mobley saw his opening. In our pre-draft coverage where I named Mobley the top prospect, there’s mention of him being an ambidextrous shot blocker. That’s a skill that can come in handy. He reached out his left (“weak”) hand and, instead of taking half a second to try to get his palm on the ball, he knocked it with the back of his hand. Watch closely–he figured out how to get the ball away from Conley and Mobley, toward the middle of the court. From now on, to me, he’s Mr. Fantastic, the leader of Marvel’s Fantastic Four superheroes. Making that play required elite speed, impossible length, and a brilliantly quick mind. Fantastic.
Here’s where the play continues. Of course, the ball was still loose and the shot clock had just been reset, but Garland came charging into the action to grab the rolling ball. Sensing Gobert had just extended himself out to the perimeter, he hesitated for a moment and stormed to the rim for a layup and the lead. Gobert, however, would not have it. He easily smacked the ball off the board, and it caromed so hard off the glass, Allen couldn’t control the rebound. He knocked it towards the baseline and as it rolled out of bounds, Gobert raced to retrieve it and save it out to Conley to start a break. Only he was falling and couldn’t muscle up enough to get it out far enough. Ricky Rubio intercepted it and within a moment, Garland had the ball on the right wing.
In the play’s final chapter, the Jazz defense had reset, and as Allen approached the ball for a screen, Gobert dropped into the driving lane to prevent yet another Garland drive. Garland surveyed the scene, and clearly remembered what had just happened to his layup when Gobert wasn’t in great position. Challenging him now would be basketball suicide. With Allen loitering as a potential screener towards the center of the court, Garland’s defender, Donovan Mitchell, invited him to drive toward Gobert and not use Allen. Garland took the bait, only this time, instead of getting to the rim, Garland launched a quick two-foot floater off the glass. A perfect decision and a bucket. The Cavs now led Utah by two with 3:07 left in the game, after trailing by 15 in the first half and 11 in the third. Utah won those final few minutes 5-2, and won the game 109-108. The next night the Cavaliers battled hard before losing a winnable game against the Bucks.
But the Cavaliers were battling.
It’s that one possession that I keep coming back to. Some of the youngest players in the league built a chain of great choices:
Garland made a wise decision passing to Mobley when two defenders confronted him.
Mobley read Gobert correctly (and just threw an inaccurate pass).
Mobley got the ball back.
Despite the mistake, Mobley didn’t panic, and took the perfect shot.
Allen stayed right with the play and would have had the tip-in against any defender not named Gobert.
Mobley showed jaw dropping speed and thinking with a possession-saving backhand.
Garland mastered the lessons of scoring around Gobert, and finished with a shot he has mastered, a quick floater downhill.
But wait, there’s more! The Cavaliers have a top-five defense, thanks to Allen and Mobley almost eliminating easy shots at the rim. Garland is shooting 39 percent from 3, averaging a smooth 19 points per game as a 21-year-old.
It seems like every team is always in search of a “big three.” They have it in Cleveland.
Allen is a juggernaut on defense; solid as a shot blocker, elite as a rim protector. He isn’t Gobert, but he’s as good as anyone else playing in the paint, taking away good angles and only allowing bad ones, leading to lower percentage shots. And only Gobert finishes on offense better, with Allen making seven of every ten shots he takes (averaging 17 points a game). Allen, though, is better than Gobert as a back-to-the basket scorer, cleverly using fakes and pivots before finishing with a long arm stretch, right- or left-handed. He’s also the rare shot blocker who rebounds very well, though again, his best strength is in forcing contested shots so he typically is in position to rebound the miss (over 11 boards per game). Averaging career highs on points and rebounds, and not turning 24 until their first playoff series since LeBron left, the Cavs have their man in the middle all set.
Garland is one of three men who average seven assists or more and hit 39 percent of their 3s or better. Stephen Curry didn’t manage that until he was 24. Garland turns 22 in six weeks. He’s a liability on defense, like most small young guards, but that’s why having Allen inside makes this duo special. One reason anyway. The two are dynamic together. When Garland attacks on the dribble, Allen fills a spot near the rim, putting Allen’s defender in trouble. He has to either commit to contesting a Garland floater and risk giving up a lob, or stay back and let Garland take a shot he loves. (What Damian Lillard would give to play with an athletic big man like Allen.)
As talented as Garland and Allen are, it’s Mobley that kicks this team’s future into rare air. His poise is as eye-catching as his speed and quickness. So often he is put into position to make a mistake, charging over someone or passing too quickly before reading the defense. But he rarely plays rushed, astonishing for a big man who is 20. Last year, James Wiseman was overwhelmed by what the Warriors asked him to do. Mobley would not be. I once thought Jaren Jackson Jr. was going to be Tim Duncan 2.0, able to dominate games Duncan-style inside while also showing a modernized big man skill game. In fact, Mobley beat him to it. He’s already elite at rim protection and he is a better shot blocker. Though he doesn’t finish well, the way he earns shots shows me he’s going to be a high-level scorer. He slinks, slides, dips, or spins the way true scoring artists do. He has a mind for scoring and a creative feel too. No one who looks like him scores efficiently at 20 years old. Pay it no mind. It’s going to come as he strengthens and gains experience.
No mention of Mobley, though, should not include his hands. He reminds me of a young Chris Webber. He may not be built like him, but he catches EVERYTHING, and despite lacking strength he wins 50/50 balls because those hands are like vices. Once the ball is in his grasp, it's his. For a rebounder, defender, and scorer, this talent can not be overstated. Show me a great inside scorer in the last four decades, and I will show you hands that are national treasures.
I'm typically not a believer in veterans being asked to mentor their future replacements. The real world of the NBA is simply not as lovey dovey as that, despite what home announcers may tell you. Nevertheless, Kevin Love is to rebounding as Tom Brady is to reading defenses. What move has he not seen, what kind of athlete has he not had to decipher and neutralize on the glass? Mobley and Allen have more athletic talent and are longer. If he’s so inclined—maybe it’s happening already—Love could whisper rebounding secrets no other player knows.
Isaac Okoro is getting a chance to be their starting shooting guard since former lotto pick Collin Sexton is out for the season with an injury. That should read "shooting" guard, because he can't shoot. Opponents will have their center on him offensively, allowing more paint help. It's an issue that must be solved by April or he won't play much in the playoffs. He looks like P.J. Tucker and plays like the young version of the defensive stud, the one that couldn't shoot and ended up playing overseas. Just 20, the fifth pick last year has time to learn that one skill. If he doesn't get it, he won't be around.
Lauri Markkanen was a controversial free-agent acquisition this past summer, making more than $15 million and suddenly without the ability to hit 3s at a rate anything like last year’s 40 percent. I’d say there's reason to hope his best is yet to come. And he's 24 all season, years from his prime. Okoro and Markkanen bring valuable pieces to this puzzle going forward. Okoro has the strength and quickness and Markkanen has the size and fluid agility to become elite defenders.
In the Bucks game, Markannen looked very good guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo from the perimeter. Less so when he posted. Still, seeing Allen on him some too gave us a glimpse of their potential future postseason battle. Beating the champs requires having some options for Giannis, and then Khris Middleton. The Cavaliers and Hawks are two teams with some guys in their rotations that can do better than just foul him a lot. Plus, don't forget Kobe's title runs with Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum. Opponents used to talk about fighting that 21 feet of height in the playoffs. That's how tall the starting frontcourt is in Cleveland, all agile and young athletes too.
The Bucks have Giannis for years, it seems, and the Hawks are young and loaded too. But looking to 2025 and beyond, the road to the Finals goes through Cleveland.
Celebrate Rudy Gobert
If it seems like the passage above sounds like a love letter starring Rudy Gobert, it is. Here’s what he did:
Broke up a sure lob dunk from Mobley to Allen.
Knocked away a sure tip-in by Allen.
Made it tough as hell for the Cavaliers to secure the ball.
Raced to get back into the play to contest Garland’s layup.
Blocked the layup.
Took away a second Garland layup and got him to take a tougher floater.
The box score credits Gobert with a blocked shot, a rebound, and a turnover. He finished the possession minus-two. But this play is all the evidence we need to understand why his advanced metrics are generally impeccable. He makes it so hard for an opponent to score, and he leads the league in dunks annually. He is always among the league leaders—typically top ten— in wins earned for his team. Only the world’s most elite players have been that consistently excellent. He is easily overlooked because he is not a prolific scorer, does not have a great post game, and is seen as just very tall. His effort, though, defines him.
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