Notes from the Cleveland Cavaliers’ two-game series in Miami

Cleveland’s two games against the Miami Heat felt like playoff warmups. V See what stood out from the Cavs’ 1-1 tie.

Both games were playoff lessons — but in different ways

Game 1, with Garland healthy, featured the Cavs winning 104-100. Neither team was exactly strong on offense, with the Cavs having an offensive rating of 113 and the Heat a 107.5 offensive rating. (Both, per Cleaning The Glass, were below league average against season totals.)

The Cavs found a way to win in two ways. First, they defended at a high level, limiting Miami to an 88.8 offensive rating in the half court. They also scored 29 points off 22 turnovers. In a game of thin margins, forcing and capitalizing was the difference. That 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 has been outstanding and probably the best player on the Cavs. Donovan Mitchell had an off night — 18 points, 7-18 from the field, 1-7 from three. He had just two points in the fourth quarter. Garland has stepped up more, stepping up his aggression and looking for his own shot in a way that is sometimes hesitant. He finished with a team-high 25 points on 8-16 shooting, including 3-6 from three. He also had 7 assists against just 3 turnovers and was 6-6 from the line.

Cleveland is 12-7 on the season when Garland makes six or more free throws. For the season, he is averaging a career-best 4.8 free throws per game. When he registers his aggression and looks to get to the lane more, Garland is at his most effective. This gives the Cavs another way to score when points are harder to come by. That will happen more often when the playoffs begin next month.

Meanwhile, Game 2 saw the Cavs lose Garland. Mitchell had 42 points and looked like he might push for 50. But he ran out of energy as the game wore on with so many issues from him and playing 43 minutes. After a 9-12 first half, Mitchell went 6-18 in the second. Having Garland there would allow Mitchell another short rest that he needed.

Cleveland’s defense also slipped, with the Heat holding a 122.7 offensive rating and a 104.7 half-court offensive rating. The Cavs’ offense was also good (119.8 offensive rating, 104.5 half-court 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 life tougher for the Heat’s best players by being physical and testing the limits of what the refs would call. That’s the right idea — both for the playoffs and what fits Cleveland’s style of play.

The Cavs are at their best when their defense is locked down and fueling the offense. This recipe did not exist on Friday.

Evan Mobley’s foul trouble also affected the Cavs’ defense, as he only played 31 minutes. In the playoffs, they’ll be in the 36-38 range, and the Cavs’ defense is at its best when it’s on the floor against the offense. He also rarely fouls, so Mobley isn’t much of a problem. But on Friday, it was.

Lamar Stevens usurped Dean Wade

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

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

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

Stevens, by comparison, knows who he is and plays. He’s not the renegade Wade is (at least when Wade is shooting), but he competes, cuts and has some mid-range pull-up shooting ability. He also takes open 3-pointers – something Wade didn’t do before his benching.

Stevens can also handle bigger wings on defense. He’s not going to lock them down, but he’s going to make them work and stay in front of them to get them to take a contested shot. Wade is fine in those spots, but Stevens has a strength advantage that helps. It was remarkable to see him hold his own against Butler. He didn’t take Butler out of the game, but he was big enough to prevent Butler from making a hard pull instead of driving inside to initiate contact and draw a foul. With Wade at that point, Butler would have attacked.

Ricky Rubio is on the rise

Rubio played 25 minutes with the Heat Friday and closed out the game for Cleveland. It’s a sign the Cavs are adding more to his plate.

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

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

“He’s getting there,” Cavs head coach JB Bickerstaff said earlier this week. “Um, you know, again, it’s going to be about opportunities for him and just, you know, pace and timing and all that stuff. I think he’s going to continue to improve the more minutes he gets, the more opportunities he gets with his teammates, the more reps against opponents and things like that. So I think he’s moving in the right direction, but I don’t think he’s 100 percent Ricky yet.”

But he knows where he needs to be defensively and plays hard – his frame allows him to keep on the move and switch when he ends up on the wings. The offense still needs to be the Rubio the Cavs need to hit their retreat. But the increased minutes show the Cavs feel he’s getting to a point naturally where that’s possible.

The Cavs feel destined for the fourth seed

Barring something unexpected, the Cavs vs. Knicks in a 4-5 matchup feels locked in.

In fourth place, the Cavs are 2.5 games ahead of the Knicks — a reasonable lead with 13 games to go. Cleveland is also 3.5 games behind third-place Philadelphia. The Cavs are in between.

It could change. Based on strength of schedule, the Cavs have the easiest remaining schedule of any NBA team in the NBA. The 76ers have the third toughest schedule. The Knicks have the eighth-easy. Cleveland also hosts Philadelphia on March 15 and the Knicks on March 31. Both of these games could have impact on the standings.

But it 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 further solidified the playoff spot.

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