The Cleveland Cavaliers have quietly built an elite championship profile with a top-five offense and a top-five defense, and they were too good for fellow Eastern Conference playoff contenders the Atlanta Hawks on Monday.
Against the Hawks, the Cavaliers rode the offensive brilliance of their two All-Star guards. Darius Garland, who the team drafted fifth overall back in 2019, had an efficient 26 points on nine-of-14 shooting, while their offseason trade acquisition Donovan Mitchell top-scored with 29 points on 11-of-22 shooting.
While having two terrific scorers in the backcourt is one thing, having two elite playmakers unlocks a whole new level of play.
Both Garland and Mitchell finished with nine assists each, with Mitchell averaging a career-high 5.8 assists since arriving from the Utah Jazz, while Garland's 7.7 assists per contest ties him for the sixth-most in the league.
When factoring in that they both play close to 40 minutes a night, coach J.B. Bickerstaff can stagger his rotation in a way where one of them is always on the floor, giving them 48 minutes of structured, competent offense, regardless of who the four surrounding players are.
While their dynamic duo are the heartbeat of their offensive success – producing the fifth-best offensive rating in the league at 114.8 points per 100 possessions – they have an equally impactful pairing in the frontcourt with seven-footers Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley.
Allen, along with Garland, was honoured last season as a first-time All-Star, while Mobley came into the league as one of the greatest defensive prospects in the history of college basketball.
It is the brilliance of that combination that has allowed the Cavaliers to concede the third-fewest points per 100 possessions (108.2) despite starting two small guards, making them the only team in the top-five of both offensive and defensive efficiency.
After Monday's win against the Hawks, Garland spoke about how their defense was able to deliver a 12-point win despite committing 20 turnovers as a team.
"We're just trying to cut the turnovers down, really – even though we had a lot tonight, we made it up on defense," he said.
"That's how we got easy buckets and got out in transition – got us a couple lay-ups, a couple lobs, and that's really what got us going.
"Our team is just unselfish – everybody sees it. We all love each other, we just want to win, we're just competitors."
Coach Bickerstaff expanded on what makes their defense so good during his postgame press conference, pointing to it as a driving force of their offense, as well.
"We've shown what we're capable of defensively," he said. "We know when we're at our best we can create stops, we can force turnovers, we can create easy opportunities for ourselves.
"In that fourth quarter, holding them to 17 points until that last three – that's how you win basketball games against good teams. You lock down defensively, and that helped our offense.
"When you're getting stops, you're playing in the flow and not against a set defense as much. All of our stuff works together – our offense helps our defense, and our defense helps our offense
"We need to be able to slow the game down and control the game. If you have to go against our half-court defense, you're going to be in for a tough time."
He went on to discuss how special the Allen and Mobley connection is, and why it is such a stark difference when Allen is out injured. The Cavaliers have a woeful defensive rating of 126.6 in the two games Allen has missed this season, and what would be a league-leading figure of 104.0 in the 15 games he has played.
"Jarrett is a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber player," he said. "When you take that away, it's obviously going to have an impact.
"But when he's on the floor, we're a different team, and when our two big guys are on the floor together, and they're working as a pair, they're hard to score on.
"Evan [Mobley] is an All-Defensive player himself, we're extremely fortunate to have two guys who can defend the way they can defend. When they're working together, you're hard-pressed to find easy looks out there."
With the win, the Cavaliers are now 7-1 at home and 11-6 overall, occupying the third seed in the Eastern Conference – a position they will be aiming to maintain all season.