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The Cleveland Cavaliers are in a position almost no one expected them to be in at this point — 18-12, sitting at No. 4 in the Eastern Conference with the fourth-best point differential in the entire NBA. Different variables have gotten attention at different points — the elite defense of rookie Evan Mobley, the continued emergence of Jarrett Allen, the steady veteran hand of Ricky Rubio. But it’s time that Darius Garland gets a little shine.
The third-year guard has blossomed with the increased opportunities that have come with Collin Sexton out and his box score line — 19.0 points, 7.4 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game, on a 58.5 true shooting percentage could make him a fringe All-Star candidate in the East.
Last year, Garland showed significant improvement from his rookie season, establishing himself as a solid initiator (6.1 assists per game) and spot-up shooter (43.2 catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage). However, there were some rough edges on his self-creation skillset and he shot just 46.3 percent off drives. Pull-up shooting, which was supposed to be one of his most reliable and easily transferrable skills, was a work in progress as well — 38.7 percent on 2s and 35.7 percent on 3s, for an overall effective field goal percentage of 44.8.
Darius Garland is powering a breakout season with his pull-up jumper
This year, Garland has made dramatic improvements in both areas, looking much more comfortable, confident and under control with the ball in his hands. He’s shooting 51.4 percent on drives (73rd percentile among players with at least 10 drives per game) and his overall effective field goal percentage on pull-ups is at 52.5 percent (ninth in the league among the 103 players averaging at least 3.0 pull-ups per game).
His pull-up 3-pointer is solid enough that he can punish teams for going under a screen or a sagging big-man on the switch.
But he’s also gotten better at leveraging the pressure defenses are giving him beyond the arc to create opportunities for blow-bys.
Some of the drives are turning into shots at the basket or smooth pull-ups but he’s also doing a great job of manipulating the space in the middle of the floor to create other defensive openings and kick the ball out.
Garland’s ability as an initiator has really helped elevate the performance of the role players around him. Lauri Markkanen has posted an effective field goal percentage of 57.0 when on the court with Garland and just 40.3 percent without him. We see the same pattern with Cedi Osman (61.4 to 53.6) and Mobley (51.6 to 44.0).
The Cavs’ elite defense has really driven their surprising run to playoff contention but it’s only working because their offense has been average as well (currently 16th, averaging 108.9 points per 100 possessions). The roster has a little more offensive versatility this season, with the additions of Markkanen, Rubio and Mobley. But the emergence of Garland as an efficient high-volume scorer, three-level threat and primary initiator has held it all together and made them more than the sum of their parts.
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It’s uncommon for an NBA team to play its best basketball after losing its best player, yet the Memphis Grizzlies have taken off since Ja Morant’s injury. This week on The Long Two, Ben Ladner digs into what’s working for Memphis, plus a look at the Timberwolves’ surprisingly stingy defense.