'They're a playoff team': The Cleveland Cavaliers are a threat and have put the NBA on notice

Posted at 2:21 PM, Jan 27, 2022

CLEVELAND — After Wednesday night's loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse last night, Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said something Cleveland fans already knew, "This is not the Cleveland that we knew in the past years."

The Cavs took down the reigning NBA champions in a blowout 115-99 win, and in doing so, made their statement clear—this team is legit, and after three years of rebuilding, they may just have found their window.

Wednesday's win was Cleveland's second of the season over Milwaukee, taking them down Dec. 18 on the road 119-90. That win wasn't, at the time, thought to hold much weight with Antetokounmpo out after being placed in the league's health and safety protocols.

But Antetokounmpo played Wednesday, and the Cavs still handily defeated the 2021 NBA Championship title holders.

"They're a good team. I think they have a better record than us right now," Antetokounmpo said after the game. "It's a team that we have to be careful, we have to scout better, we got to make sure that we respect them even more now because they're a playoff team, they're out there fighting for the title themselves."

After where the Cavs have been since 2018 when LeBron James departed to join the Los Angeles Lakers, hearing the words "playoff team" might seem bananas. But the Cavaliers are just that.

Now sitting at third in the Eastern Conference standings, the Cavs are just 1.5 games out of first place, trailing just the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat. They boast a 30-19 record and it isn't even All-Star break yet.

The resurgence of this Cavs team may be one for the ages. Last year, the Cavs collected a total of 22 wins throughout the entire season. With 30 wins now and 33 games still left on the schedule, the Cavs have well surpassed everyone's expectations—except their own.

The turnaround

Darius Garland
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Darius Garland celebrates after achieving a triple-double.

At the end of last season, President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman said, “We know that it's time to take a next step. I don't know what that next step is, but definitely move this thing forward and put ourselves in a position to be playing real games, meaningful games at the end of the season,”

During the end-of-season press conference, Altman said that adding talent heading into this season was going to be crucial, focusing on size and athleticism. With the smaller backcourt of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, the Cavs needed size.

Enter Evan Mobley.

At 6-11 and 215 pounds with a 7-4 wingspan, Mobley's impact so far in his rookie campaign has taken the Cavs to new heights, pun intended. Averaging 15 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, the rookie has been a force on both sides of the court.

Selected with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, Mobley joined 6-11 Jarrett Allen, who impressed in his first season with the Cavs last year, and 7-footer Lauri Markkanen, who the Cavs traded for in August.

“There's no secret we need some size and some length and some talent around them and to keep adding to that would be really meaningful to us. Teams have been successful with small backcourts. Teams have gone to the promised land with small backcourts. We've studied this. It's more what you put around them,” Altman said at the end of the season.

Mobley, Allen and Markkanen have garnered the nickname "Tower City"—a reference to Cleveland's historic shopping center and ode to their size.

And while Sexton was sidelined for the season with a torn meniscus in his left knee, the bigs have been beneficial to Garland, who has also shown tremendous growth this season.

Garland has developed into a star, not just on the Cavs but across the league. Averaging 19.7 points and 8.2 assists while shooting 46.7% from the field and 36.4% from three, Garland has drawn the attention of fans and opponents alike. His clutch demeanor has not wavered in big moments and he's proved he can facilitate the Cavs offense in ways that have helped lead them to their current 30-19 record.

But it's not just the addition of new talent and size to the starting lineup that helped the Cavs turn things around, it's the culture shift, too.

Built by Bickerstaff

J.B. Bickerstaff
Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff calls out to players.

Last season was, at times, tumultuous. Veteran leader Kevin Love seemed miserable, playing just 25 games this season due to a nagging right calf strain and also acting out on the court, throwing a tantrum mid-game and talking about his desire to play in Portland. Rumors circulated of a disbanded locker room and negative feelings about Sexton, among other areas.

Some of that is expected in a rebuild, sure, but things were messy.

But Bickerstaff, who assumed the head coaching position in 2020, has a way with his players. He always has. It's one of the reasons he took over the position for John Beilein, under whose leadership players gravitated towards Bickerstaff.

His way with players has been palpable. This year, Bickerstaff's players have banded together.

Love is having fun again and embracing his new bench role, Garland has found his confidence and owned it, Isaac Okoro has made major strides in his offensive development while staying true to his defensive strengths. The team barks (literally barks) together on the sidelines, in the locker rooms, after big plays—having fun with the underdog mentality that Cleveland knows so well.

The personalities, the excitement, the energy—all fostered by Bickerstaff, who began the year with a simple goal for the Cavs: have fun.

"When we're together and we're supporting one another and we're feeding off each other's energy and fire, and now the fans start to feel that, and now we start to feel the fire and the energy and the passion from the fans, that's when it's fun and that's where we're headed," Bickerstaff told the team during a shootaround. "We want to have fun. You guys have exciting talent. Let that talent show and let's have some fun."

Bickerstaff says, in some form or another, after nearly every game, that the thing that makes the Cavs so special is that they are playing for each other each and every night. Egos have been checked and put aside, bonds have been formed, and the shift in the culture within the Cavs organization has helped them collect win after win.

They told us so

Heading into the season, the Cavs launched a new motto for the 2021-22 campaign: #LetEmKnow.

The hashtag is the team's official social media branding, and those who have been able to watch them on Bally Sports Ohio have seen the commercial branding this team as one to watch.

"They thought they knew us. They thought they had Cleveland all figured out. But while they weren't looking, we stayed true to ourselves," the commercial's narrator says. "They thought they knew us, but imagine what they'll know us as now."

Launched before the season started, the commercial may have seemed to be an ode to the city of Cleveland itself—a city that has always been underrated, under-appreciated and underestimated by outsiders—but it was much more than that. It was foreshadowing.

As with any young roster, the Cavs have some areas to grow. Hitting their free throws, having someone step up as a secondary ball-handler, a scorer when Garland needs a break, keeping their foot on the pedal throughout a game, every game. Otherwise, the Cavs seem to have it figured out. They had a vision for what this team could be with the pieces on their roster. For the first time since the Cavs' 90s era, the franchise is showing winning potential without the help of LeBron James—and that is a testament to this team in its own right.

"They should have known better," the preseason commercial said.

And that TV spot proved to be right. Never underestimate Cleveland, city of underdogs and home of the rising Cleveland Cavaliers.

Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.

Download the News 5 Cleveland app now for more stories from us, plus alerts on major news, the latest weather forecast, traffic information and much more. Download now on your Apple device here, and your Android device here.

You can also catch News 5 Cleveland on Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, YouTube TV, DIRECTV NOW, Hulu Live and more. We're also on Amazon Alexa devices. Learn more about our streaming options here.