TORONTO — Who doesn’t love a good underdog story?
A few weeks ago, one of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ assistant coaches joked about the team’s diabolical early season schedule.
“At least they gave us some easy ones out the gate,” he said with a sarcastic look.
On Friday they played for the first time against an opponent who did not make the Play-In Tournament or the Playoffs of last year. And the Toronto Raptors are hardly a gimme, going into the night with a 6-3 record while riding a five-game winning streak. Oddsmakers said the Cavs were 5.5-point underdogs, giving the opponent the lead in the 10th game in a row.
Despite one of the league’s toughest schedules—and an inexperienced grid averaging less than 22 years old—the Cavs are 6-4. They have won three in a row.
These aren’t crazy wins either. Home vs Portland and Atlanta. En route in Denver, Los Angeles (Clippers), Charlotte and Toronto.
It’s no wonder the Cavaliers walked out of the raucous Scotiabank Arena with confidence on Friday night.
“There’s something special brewing in that locker room,” said Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff after the 102-101 come-from-behind win. “Everyone wants to be a part of it.”
Of their six wins, Friday was arguably the most unlikely. The Cavs had no business. Even Bickerstaff was perplexed.
“It’s hard to believe,” he said.
They led 4.8 seconds. They turned the ball no less than 19 times, 16 of which in the first three quarters. Gave up 19 offensive rebounds. Unnamed players Cedi Osman combined for 1-on-9 3-point shooting in the first half. Veteran Ricky Rubio – the only player over 28 able to adapt and see the floor while Kevin Love remains in league health and safety protocols – was in serious trouble for most of the night, leaving him limited to a season layer of 22 minutes. Three players are missing from the daily rotation. Collin Sexton with one of his worst individual performances, nearly imploding by a late-game possession. Dropped by 15 at one point. A six backlog going into the fourth quarter. A five point deficit in the last two minutes. Sometimes ugly.
But they found a way and responded to Bickerstaff’s challenge to ramp up the intensity and not allow the Raptors to win the scrap.
“We could have folded knowing that we were literally down the entire game, but we stayed until the end,” said Jarrett Allen. “It’s a lot of fun to play with these guys. Everyone is super talented; no one is selfish on this team. We could have gone towards the end of the game and played one-on-one. But we kept sharing the ball, kept hitting the right person and it just makes it fun to play together as a team. It makes it easier to work hard.”
Everybody had a share in Friday’s win. There is a team-wide understanding – and acceptance – of roles.
Garland, who has emerged as the leader, scored 12 of his team-high 21 points in the fourth quarter. That includes two critical free throws, which gave Cleveland the lone lead.
After a lousy first half, Garland played with power and aggressiveness, repeatedly chasing the Raptors’ stifling, physical, active defense. Garland went downhill, in the paint and mostly made the right reads, dishing out eight assists to back up his big night of scoring.
“He had decided he would help us win this game,” Bickerstaff said of Garland. “He went out and did it.”
Garland’s impact went beyond the box score – and it started months ago. Garland acknowledged a leadership void after Larry Nance Jr.’s trade. and made a concerted effort to be more vocal this season. He wants this to be his team. It is the next step in its evolution. It can’t just be verbal. It must be an example. Whenever there was a hiatus late Friday night, Garland offered encouragement or discussed scenarios with teammates. He played the final minutes with maturity and control normally received for someone with much more experience.
“He kept us calm,” Allen said. “Towards the end you could see we were getting confused, they made some hard shots, our defense wasn’t where it needed to be and he got us all together and told us to play our game. Got us to the right spots, got us the pictures we needed. Lead this team. He was the coach on the floor.”
Garland was always humble and gave credit to his teammates. According to him, they made the reads and passes easy. They let him pick his spots throughout the match.
He picked Evan Mobley, who had 18 points, five rebounds, two assists and one block in 38 minutes. After Garland calmly drilled his two foul shots to give Cleveland the lead by one, and both teams headed to their respective benches for a final timeout, he immediately turned to Mobley with a targeted message.
“You guided us tonight. You led us to this victory,” Garland told him.
Mobley had a questioning look on his face.
“We have four seconds left,” said the rookie.
The Cavs got the defensive stop they needed. For the second straight night, Allen delivered, forcing OG Anunoby to a faded six-footer that bounced off the rim.
That capped off another craftsmanship from Cleveland’s thriving young center as Allen scored 16 points to go with 15 rebounds, two steals and a block. He even put in his first three-pointer to draw the Cavaliers, even with just over four minutes left — then lightly grabbed his three-finger afro in celebration.
“It’s the buy-in he has for his teammates, for organizing and helping this team to be the best it can be,” Bickerstaff said of Allen. “He knows what his strengths are. He doesn’t try to be anyone but he is. He has the ability to dominate the paint on both sides and when he makes a decision we’ve seen it over and over, he’s in there and takes names. That’s just a fiercely competitive nature to get a job done and help this team win by being the best it can be. That’s brewing in that locker room. Guys are trying to figure out each one of them individually: “What is my way of helping the team?’ Jarrett has found his way.”
The others have that too. Friday especially. Dean Wade stepped into the grid for the second game in a row. Osman threw five triples off the bench and held up the Cavs’ attack while Garland and Sexton struggled. Osman also had a critical chase block that prevented a Fred VanVleet bucket with less than three minutes to go. Rubio made some timely hoops, one of five players to score in double figures. Lamar Stevens came into the game nine energetic, tenacious second half minutes. He finished with the best plus-minus of the team. Even Sexton won the late jump ball against Gary Trent Jr., saving himself from the nighttime goat.
Cleveland Cavaliers Basketball: Tough, Spicy, Fun, Team First.
“It’s just a unique group,” Garland said. “All locked up. We have one goal and we want to achieve that goal. There are no individual agendas. Everyone just plays their part, everyone steps into their part. Such victories give us a lot of confidence.”
How long will that take?
“I don’t know how good we are yet, but we haven’t stopped yet,” Bickerstaff told cleveland.com. “There are still some minor things to fix, but we’re getting there.”
While the ultimate destination is yet to be seen, the Cavs have a plan for getting there — and a growing belief that great things are possible.
“I feel like we can go pretty far,” Mobley said. “Every game we get more and more confident. The chemistry builds up every game.”
Shortly after the buzzer sounded and the stunned crowd headed for the exits, the Cavs gathered as a group at center court. They barked (a new celebration Stevens started and one the team has adopted) then brought it in.
Together on three.
How appropriate. The Cavs know who they are. They know how to play. It must be a collective approach.
“We can’t be dominated by one man or two guys,” Bickerstaff said. “We cannot be an isolation team, a one-on-one team. We have to be the team that shares the game offensively. We have to be a team that is connected.”
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