After a Strong Start, Cavs Catch Fire Heading Into the Holidays
by Joe Gabriele (@CavsJoeG)
5/4/22 | Cavs.com
Through the first two months of the 2021-22 campaign, the young Cavaliers – predicted to pull down about 27 wins – were just above the .500 mark at 11-10, rattling off win streaks of three and four games and going 3-2 on an early-season West Coast trip.
Things were looking up in Cleveland.
Little did anyone know that the squad were just getting warmed up.
In the second installment of Cavs.com’s three-part season recap, we focus of the fat, juicy middle of the Wine & Gold’s crazy campaign – going 25-15 over a three-month stretch and placing themselves firmly in the Eastern Conference Playoff picture.
The Cavaliers bookended this superb run by winning eight of their first 10 outings in December and showing off their outstanding young guns – along with the entire city – when they hosted the 2022 All-Star Weekend in Cleveland.
Not long after the All-Star Break, injuries began taking their toll on J.B. Bickerstaff’s team – and they struggled to recapture the magic of campaign’s first five months down the stretch. But their excellent – and at times, dominant – midseason run set them up for the most fun finish Cavs fans have enjoyed in many, many moons.
Heating Up — By the time the holidays began rolling around, the Cavaliers were already starting to get on opponents’ radar. They were off to a rock-solid start, but skeptics still wondered if they could keep it rolling for an entire year.
They answered that question demonstrably in December, turned in one of the greatest road trips in team history in January and ran off four straight wins just before the All-Star Break. And despite a rough patch after the midseason classic, the Wine & Gold still closed out the month of February with a 36-25 mark, good for 4th-best in the Conference, just a half-game behind the World Champion Bucks.
Cleveland came into December on a two game-run and won that month’s first two. After that four-game run, and over the three-month stretch through February, the Cavs proceeded to run off winning streaks of three, four, five and six games.
October and November proved to be tasty appetizers. The Cavs put on some winter-weight in December.
Dominant December — The Cavs should’ve known the month would go their way on December’s first day – rolling into South Beach, where they hadn’t won since Shaquille O’Neal was the starting center – and blasting the Conference’s eventual top seed by 26 points. The win snapped a 20-game road skein to the Heat and was Cleveland’s third straight double-digit win – a streak they’d run to four two nights later in D.C.
Beginning with a December 8 victory over the Bulls, the Cavs rattled off six straight victories, winning by an average of 21.5 points per. After having that win streak snapped in Boston, Cleveland returned home the night after Christmas and demolished the Raptors by 45 points, piling up a team-record 118 points through the first three quarters.
If Kevin Love was just getting used to his Sixth Man role in the first couple months of the season, he was beginning to excel in it beginning in December. During the month, the 14th-year man – who would eventually become the franchise’s all-time single-season leader off the bench – drilled 57 three-pointers, trailing only Stephen Curry. In his 15 outings, he hit at least three bombs in 11 of them.
Love was simply outstanding in a New Year’s Eve loss to the Hawks – erupting for 35 points and 11 boards off the bench, joining Campy Russell as the the only reserves in team history to do so.
Rubio Revolution — Veteran point guard Ricky Rubio – dealt to the Pacers in a Deadline deal with Indiana to acquire swingman Caris LeVert – was a revelation during his short time in Cleveland. And after Collin Sexton’s season-ending injury put the team behind the 8-ball early, Rubio’s loss on December 28 in New Orleans was a bridge too far for the Playoff-hopeful Cavaliers.
The 11-year veteran’s numbers – 13.1ppg, 6.6apg – truly don’t begin to explain the effect Rubio had on the Cavaliers – especially Darius Garland, who eventually carried the club into the postseason.
Even after the injury to Sexton, the Wine & Gold were absolutely humming with Rubio in the lineup.
The Spanish sensation – who dropped 38 points on Team USA in the Olympics the previous summer – was even rolling in the game which turned out to be the season’s last. When he left the game against New Orleans in the fourth quarter with a torn ACL in his left knee, Rubio had 27 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists, two steals and two blocks.
Call of the West — In many ways, the Cavaliers built the foundation for their season with a successful 3-2 West Coast trip very early in the campaign. But they totally outdid themselves on the next big roadie – going 5-1 on a rough six-game junket out West in January.
On January 7, Cleveland notched a double-digit win over the Blazers, and after falling to the Warriors two nights later in San Francisco, proceeded to run off four straight – capped by a comeback win in Oklahoma City in which Darius Garland went off for 27 points and 18 assists.
To close the trip, the surging Cavaliers notched wins over the Kings, Jazz, Spurs and Thunder, blasting Utah by 20 points in Salt Lake City.
When the Wine & Gold returned home from their roadie, they ran their win streak to five – dropping the Brooklyn Nets in a MLK Day thriller at the FieldHouse.
Shooting Stars — The city of Cleveland celebrated the league’s 50th anniversary when it hosted the NBA All-Star Game in 1997. And this past season, they marked the Association’s 75th season in style at the corner of Huron and Ontario.
Both Jarrett Allen and Darius Garland were named Eastern Conference All-Stars for the first time in their careers and both Evan Mobley and Isaac Okoro were named to the Rising Stars Game on Friday night with Mobley joining Allen and Garland in the Skills Challenge on Saturday.
All three were playing excellent ball heading into the midseason classic.
Over the three-game stretch before the break, Mobley averaged 15.0 points and 8.2 boards, with a 11 double-doubles and 19 games of multiple blocked shots. Allen averaged 16.3 points and 10.8 rebounds over that span, shooting .659 from the floor and stacking up 20 double-doubles – with Cleveland going 18-2 in those games. Garland averaged 20.4 points and 10.2 assists in January, doubling-up eight times in the month.
In Saturday night’s Skills Challenge, in front of a star-studded packed house, the Cavaliers trio advanced to the second round in a shootout against the Antetokounmpos brothers – with Garland drilling a three-pointer to seal the win. The wild ending came in the final round against a troika of rookies.
After the score was tied after three rounds, it came down to a race to which team could sink a halfcourt shot in the least amount of time. Cade Cunningham – who earned MVP honors in Friday night’s Rising Stars Game – 9.9 seconds to drill his halfcourt bomb. But it was Cleveland’s week, and Evan Mobley stepped to the timeline and drilled his dagger just 5.5 seconds into the extra session.
In Sunday night’s All-Star Game itself – with the league’s 75 greatest players appearing in an historic halftime presentation – the Cavaliers young duo acquitted itself very well.
Garland finished with 13 points, going 5-of-12 from the floor, including 3-of-7 from long-distance, adding three assists and a pair. Allen was just as efficient, netting 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting, grabbing nine rebounds to lead all reserves and swatting a pair of shots in the win.