After a topsy-turvy start to the year, the Cleveland Cavaliers have developed a killer instinct on the defensive side of the ball. Sure, having Evan Mobley back makes this a lot easier for Cleveland to pull off. But, in their latest win over the Toronto Raptors, the Cavs showed no mercy against the NBA's lone Canadian squad.
In a game where the Cavs were comfortable with a 95-73 advantage after three quarters, this 119-95 victory extended Cleveland’s winning streak to nine games. It also marked their 19th double-digit victory and improved Cleveland's record to 33-2 when taking a lead into the fourth quarter.
That 33-2 stretch also includes a perfect 16-0 road mark, crystalizing how suffocating the Cavs have become on the defensive side of the ball.
Cavs take down the Raptors
Cleveland held Toronto, which averages 113.9 points, below the 100-point threshold for just the sixth time all season. And in the fourth quarter, winning time, the Cavs hit another defensive gear, refusing to take their foot off the gas while holding the Raptors to 22 points and forcing both teams to empty the bench with about three minutes remaining.
“It shows you the character of our team and the toughness that we have,” Max Strus said postgame. “An ability to be locked in every night. We could get lackadaisical and take a night off. But we’re not. We want to win every game. We want to win every game by as much as we can. That’s what I love about this team. There’s a lot of fight. There’s a lot of hunger. Guys want to be great. It’s fun. We’re sharing in each other’s success and enjoying it.”
While the biggest revelation coming out of Cleveland's locker room lately is a faster, three-point-heavy offense dominating teams and running up scoreboards, the defensive presence has always lingered. It was always something the Cavs had leaned on in the past, and this season, things just took a while to manifest on the court.
Overall, the Cavs rank second in defensive rating and keep pulling closer to Minnesota, which has occupied the top spot essentially all season. But since the start of January, no one has been more stifling defensively than Cleveland, allowing just 105.1 points per 100 possessions and opponents to connect on 43.7% of their attempts from the field.
“It’s a focus and commitment to one another and to the success we have had,” head coach J.B. Bickerstaff shared. “Everybody knows when we defend, we’re very hard to beat. That’s how we get leads. Then, the defense transitions into a thrust offensively. It makes people feel like they are chasing us all night, and they feel suffocated because they can’t catch their breath.”
Since the calendar flipped to 2024, a 19-game stretch in which they own a 17-2 record, the best in the NBA, the Cavs have only trailed for 188 total minutes out of a possible 912. The defensive juggernaut's emergence is a level of unprecedented dominance, especially in the modern era where the three-point shot tends to erase leads quickly.
In this win over the Raptors, All-Star forward Scottie Barnes had a triple-double, which was meaningless for Toronto's chances. After five lead changes and five ties in the first quarter, Cleveland turned up their intensity and made Toronto feel them defensively heading into the second frame.
Sure, the Raptors did pull things within four points at one point. But, when Cleveland increased its edge to double digits for the first time a little more than two minutes into the second quarter, it never fell below that, suffocating Toronto on defense and breaking their backs on offense.
This comfortable cushion the Cavs built against the Raptors has become the norm, and they don’t plan to cool off anytime soon. It's just not how they're wired as a team, and as the regular season ends and the playoffs begin, Cleveland could be a team no team wants to face since the Cavs aren't running from the grind.
They are the grind.