Late on Monday afternoon, the Brooklyn Nets trailed the Cleveland Cavaliers by three points with less than 30 seconds remaining. But with possession of the ball and James Harden and Kyrie Irving on their side, they still had a chance. Or, at least, they did until Lauri Markkanen smothered Harden's drive, forcing a bad pass that Isaac Okoro took the other way for an uncontested, game-sealing dunk.
After a few perfunctory free throws from Kevin Love, the Cavaliers walked off the floor with a 114-107 victory over the preseason title favorites. Even though Kevin Durant didn't play due to a knee injury, this was still one of the most impressive results of the season for the Cavaliers, who have now won five in a row to improve to 27-18 -- just two games out of first place in the Eastern Conference.
No one saw this sort of turnaround coming for the Cavaliers -- their preseason win total projection by Caesars Sportsbook was just 25.5 -- but they've proven time and again that they're a real problem in the East. That's due in large part to their elite defense, which ranks third in the league (105 defensive rating) and was on display yet again on Monday.
In the fourth quarter, in particular, the Cavs were stellar on that end of the floor. They held the Nets to 19 points on 6-for-20 from the field, which was just the 12th time all season the Nets have scored fewer than 20 points in a quarter, per Stathead. Even more impressive was that after Harden tied the game at 105-105 with 3:43 to play, the Cavs allowed just two points the rest of the way.
"It's a signature win for us against a high-level team," Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "The most impressive thing is to hold a team like that to 19 points in the fourth that lets you know what you're capable of defensively."
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Leading the way on that end, as he usually does, was rookie big man Evan Mobley. With his rare combination of length, athleticism, timing and feel for the game, he's already one of the best defensive rookies we've ever seen, and his exploits have been well documented. Against the Nets, he was all over the place. He played the entire fourth quarter, and in addition to four points and four rebounds, he altered a number of shots.
Watch here in the pick-and-roll, as he sits down in a stance to shut down Irving's drive, then uses his long arms to get out and contest the jumper. Irving thought he created plenty of space, but Mobley nearly got the block and forced the high-arcing miss.
Later on, Mobley showed off his abilities at the rim. This time, Irving used his quickness to snake around Jarrett Allen and get into the paint. It seemed like he was going to get a layup, but Mobley arrived just in time to go straight up and make Irving miss without fouling.
Two completely different plays that show why Mobley and the Cavs are so difficult to score against. If you put Mobley in the pick-and-roll, he's long and mobile enough that it's rarely going to be a serious mismatch. But if you run actions away from him to try and get him out of the play, he has the awareness and ability to clean things up on the back end anyway.
As great as he was, Mobley wasn't the only one making plays in the fourth quarter. Isaac Okoro, the No. 5 overall pick in last year's draft, doesn't get much attention but is a terrific defender in his own right. In addition to the steal and dunk in the closing seconds, Okoro was giving Irving fits.
The seven-time All-Star tried to isolate against Okoro multiple times, but had no success. Here's a perfect example from late in the game. Okoro closes out to prevent the 3-pointer, cuts off the drive, keeps his hands high and forces Irving into a difficult leaner going away from the basket.
That none of these clips feature Allen, who is eighth in rebounding (10.9) and 12th in blocks (1.4) in the league, and possibly heading to his first All-Star Game, is a testament to the depth of defensive talent on this roster. In a league that has been steadily trending smaller, the Cavs zagged and feature three seven-footers (Allen, Mobley and Markkanen) in their starting lineup. As a result, they clean up on the glass, and allow nothing at the rim; they're holding opponents to a league-low 58 percent in the restricted area.
Questions remain about whether they can consistently score enough, especially with Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio out for the season, but with their defense operating at this level, no one is going to want to play the Cavaliers come playoff time.