When the second half began between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons, it felt like deja vu. Even though the Pistons are suffering through a double-digit losing streak, it looked like the Cavs were the team dealing with constant defeat. Cleveland came out flat while Detroit was sharp, with Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey taking turns picking the Cavs apart.
That's when head coach J.B. Bickerstaff took a gamble by pulling Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland's best player, for Isaac Okoro. While it seems insane for Bickerstaff to pull his team's best offensive threat for one averaging under eight points per game, it ended up paying off for the Cavs. While he isn't the biggest scoring threat, Okoro is Cleveland's best perimeter defender and made it a point of emphasis to slow down Detroit's attack behind Cunningham and Ivey. It allowed the Cavs not to have to match the Pistons shot for shot and instead set things to their preferred pace and style of play.
“We started to ramp it up halfway through the third quarter,” Allen said. “We were playing team basketball. I give it to Isaac. Felt like he did everything. Taking charges. Putting pressure on the defense. Just did it all. He’s the type of guy you can put on anybody and have him make a difference in the game. It’s underappreciated.”
Isaac Okoro's big impact
Isaac Okoro had four of his nine points in the third quarter on the evening, going a perfect 2-of-2 from the floor. Overall, Okoro finished the game with six rebounds, four assists and four steals to go with those nine points, further emphasizing Allen's point. Okoro is a fairly underrated player and doesn't stand out when looking at the box score most nights, and that will never change.
Instead, you have to watch Okoro and his two-way impact all over the court to appreciate how important he is to Cleveland every night. If it wasn't for Bickerstaff's gamble and Okoro stepping up to the task, the Cavs could have lost to the Pistons in Detroit. Not only would that have been even more embarrassing, but it likely would've caused wholesale change at the top for Cleveland. Thanks to their unsung hero in Okoro, that conversation can be kicked down the line for Cleveland to another day.
But with Okoro finally back after missing nearly 10 games for the Cavs, he could keep this upward momentum going for Cleveland despite being a reserve. Okoro looks settled into his role with the Cavs for the first time in his career. He fully understands that his role is to lock down the opponent's greatest perimeter threat while keeping defenses honest with a handful of buckets.
That's something neither Okoro nor Cleveland were ever on the same page about early into his career. But now that he has embraced the role as a defensive specialist, Okoro can further unlock things on either end of the floor for the Cavs.
While a defensive specialist coming off the bench may not be fitting of a former top-five selection, it doesn't matter for Okoro or Cleveland. Both sides were able to find a partnership that works and, in turn, has made Okoro a vital piece for the Cavs every time they take the hardwood.
Like this win over Detroit, Cleveland has won games this season because of Okoro's defensive prowess. Now that he's more settled into a more defined role, the sky is the limit for what Isaac Okoro can do for the Cavs.