Notes from the Cleveland Cavaliers two-game series in Miami

Cleveland’s two-game list against the Miami Heat felt like a playoff warm-up.v Here’s what stood out in the Cavs’ 1-1 split.

Both games were playoff lessons — but in different ways

In Game 1, which saw Garland healthy, the Cavs went on to a 104-100 win. Neither team was particularly strong on offense, with the Cavs having a 113 offensive rating and the Heat having a 107.5 offensive rating. (Both were below the league average compared to season totals, according to Cleaning The Glass.)

The Cavs found a way to win in two ways. First, they defend at a high level, limiting Miami to an 88.8 offensive rating at half court. They also scored 29 points from 22 turnovers. In a tight margin game, forcing and capitalizing on sales made the difference. This was against a team with a turnover rate in the top half of the league, per Cleaning The Glass. This is impressive.

Second, Darius Garland was outstanding and probably the Cavs’ best player. Donovan Mitchell had a night off – 18 points, 7-18 from the field, 1-7 from three. In the fourth quarter he only had two points. Garland has more than stepped up, ramping up his aggression and seeking his own shot in a way he’s sometimes reluctant to do. He finished the race with 25 points as the team’s best in 8-16 shooting, which included a 3-6 mark out of three. He also had 7 assists vs. just 3 turnovers and was 6-6 from the line.

Cleveland is 12-7 the season Garland has six or more free throws. For the season, he averaged a career-best 4.8 free throws per game. When he increases his aggression and tries to get more on the line, Garland is at his most efficient. That gives the Cavs another opportunity to score when points are harder to come by. That will happen more often when the playoffs start next month.

The Cavs, meanwhile, missed Garland in Game 2. Mitchell had 42 points and looked like he was pushing for 50. But he ran out of energy as the game went on, so much was asked of him and he played 43 minutes. After going 9-12 in the first half, Mitchell was up 6-18 in the second. Garland’s presence would have given Mitchell another short break that he needed.

Cleveland’s defense also faltered, with the Heat having a 122.7 offensive rating and a 104.7 halffield offensive rating. The Cavs’ offense was also good (119.8 offensive rating, 104.5 halfcourt rating), but not good enough.

Both Mitchell and Isaac Okoro said after the game that the Cavs could have been more physical. They also said they should make it harder for the Heat’s best players to be physical and test the limits of what the umpires would call. That’s the right idea — both for the playoffs and for what suits Cleveland’s playstyle.

The Cavs are at their best when their defense is locked in and flowing into offense. The recipe was not there on Friday.

Evan Mobley’s nagging troubles also affected the Cavs’ defense as he only played 31 minutes. He’ll be in the 36-38 range in the playoffs, and the Cavs’ defense is better when he’s on the ground or off. He also rarely fouls, so Mobley getting into foul trouble isn’t a big deal. But on Friday it was time.

Lamar Stevens has usurped Dean Wade

After Stevens’ performance against the Celtics, he’s now in the Cavs rotation. It’s not Dean Wade.

While Stevens played 26 and 24 minutes in two games against Miami, Wade played zero. Even in the second game when Darius Garland was out, Cedi Osman saw minutes instead of Wade.

Wade hasn’t played well since taking the minutes from Kevin Love. Shooting under 20% from three since Love asked for a buyout isn’t good enough. It would bench Wade in the playoffs, and with Cleveland now tightening their rotation in preparation for the playoffs, it makes sense now.

By comparison, Stevens knows who he is and plays. He’s not the spacer that Wade is (at least when Wade is making shots), but he competes, cuts and has some shooting ability on mid-range pull-ups. He also does open threes – something Wade didn’t do prior to his bench press.

Stevens can also hold his own on defense against larger wings. He won’t lock them up, but he will make them work and stay in front of them for a contested shot. Wade is okay in these spots, but Stevens has a strength advantage that helps. It was remarkable to see how he held his own against Butler. He didn’t take Butler out of the game, but he was big enough to stop Butler from making a hard pull-up instead of driving in to make contact and pull a foul. With Wade there, Butler would have thrown himself.

Ricky Rubio rises

Rubio played a season-high 25 minutes against Heat Friday, finishing the game for Cleveland. It’s a sign the Cavs are adding more to his plate.

But it’s still remarkable how cautious the Cavs have been with Rubio since his Jan. 12 debut. He hasn’t played back-to-back this season. (Cleveland’s last is next week and it’s unclear if Rubio will play in both games.) Prior to Friday, his season-high minutes was 22 minutes on Wednesday. Including Friday, he had only played more than 20 minutes once all season.

Rubio isn’t quite back yet – he’s still moving like a 32-year-old working at full strength again after a second ACL year in the game. His offensive numbers are not good.

“He’s on his way there,” Cavs head coach JB Bickerstaff said earlier this week. “Um, you know, it’s going to be about opportunities for him again and just, you know, rhythm and timing and all those things. I think he’s getting better and better the more minutes he gets, the more chances he has with his teammates, the more replays against opponents and things like that. So I think he’s headed in the right direction, but I don’t think he’s 100% Ricky anymore.”

But he knows where to be on defense and plays big – his physique allows him to hold drives and switches when he lands on the wings. Offense has yet to come for him to be the Rubio the Cavs need to hit their cielding. But increased minutes suggest the Cavs feel he’s getting to a point physically where that’s possible.

The Cavs feel destined for the fourth seed

Barring something unexpected, Cavs vs. Knicks feels stuck in a 4-5 match.

In fourth place, the Cavs are 2.5 games ahead of the Knicks — a reasonable lead with 13 games remaining. Cleveland is also 3.5 games behind third-placed Philadelphia. The Cavs find themselves sandwiched between them.

It could change. Based on schedule strength, the Cavs have the easiest schedule of any NBA in the NBA. The 76ers have the third toughest schedule; The Knicks have the eighth easiest. Cleveland will also host Philadelphia on March 15 and the Knicks on March 31. Both games could have an impact on the rankings.

But there would be wild swings for that to happen. When the Cavs lost to the Heat on March 10, the 76ers beat the Trail Blazers with Joel Embiid hitting a game winner. That day only cemented their position in the playoffs.

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