Should the Cleveland Cavaliers start guard Caris LeVert or forward Isaac Okoro when the team takes on the New York Knicks in its remaining games of the first round of the NBA playoffs?
The Cavs experimented with a lineup change when they faced the Knicks in Game 3 on Friday, slotting LeVert at the three spot while keeping their big four in the starting five.
In front of a Madison Square Garden crowd that featured Walt Frazier and Allan Houston, New York walked away with a 99-79 win over Cleveland on their home court, limiting the Cavs to 17 points in the first quarter and 15 in the second. Knicks fans began raining down “MVP” chants to New York forward Julius Randle, who finished the night with 11 points with three made shots on 15 tries, as he took to the free throw line early in the first quarter.
Cleveland’s bench combined for 14 points the entire night.
“Not being able to make shots definitely hurts as well, but it’s one of those things where we’ll be good,” Cavs guard Donovan Mitchell said, via NBA.com. “Like, kind of breathe and relax and calm down.”
Should the Cavs opt for the veteran experience in LeVert for the rest of the postseason? Or should they bring Okoro back into the starting lineup in hopes of shifting the tides just enough to tie the series up at two games apiece?
As always, Cavs Nation, it helps to go over the basics.
The question of the starting small forward role for the Cavs stretches back to before the preseason. A laundry list of Cavs options, from forwards Cedi Osman to Lamar Stevens and Dean Wade, made up the potential options to take up the starting mantle with Cleveland’s big four.
“Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff indicates to us that Cleveland will likely figure out who is starting at the three by the end of preseason and experiment during,” Right Down Euclid Editor-in-Chief Evan Dammarell wrote in a September tweet. “Bickerstaff says Osman, Windler, LeVert, Stevens, Wade and Okoro are in the mix and there is no clear front runner.”
The Cavs have used 22 starting lineups in the 82-game regular season, according to Basketball Reference. Their most-used lineup, a starting five of guard Darius Garland, Mitchell, Okoro, forward Evan Mobley and center Jarrett Allen, achieved a record of 20-9. The same lineup with LeVert at the small forward went 2-4 in six games played.
LeVert took a starting role in the first 14 games of the season, scoring as many as 41 points while making 12 of his 21 shots during a 9-point win over the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. He ended the season with 30 starts in 74 games, placing fifth on Cleveland’s roster with 12.1 points per game while shooting at 43.1% from the field and 39.2% from the 3-point line.
Isaac Okoro, a third-year forward out of Auburn, ended the regular season with 76 games played and 46 games started. He scored as many as 20 points in a 19-point win over a Central Division rival in the Indiana Pacers in early February, hitting seven of his nine attempts in just over 29 minutes played at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
Caris LeVert, a former first-round draft selection by the Pacers in 2016, has playoff experience stretching back to 2019. Alongside Allen, a fun young group and now-Golden State Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson at the coaching helm, LeVert and the Brooklyn Nets fell in five games to the Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid-led Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of 2019 playoffs. LeVert and Allen would return to the playoffs in 2020, but were swept by the Toronto Raptors in the first round.
Isaac Okoro played the first three postseason games of his NBA career this year. He took a starting role and played in just under 23 minutes in Game 1 before playing in just under three during Game 2.
For Caris LeVert
Caris LeVert separated himself as an X-Factor for the Cavaliers during Game 2, scoring 24 points and hitting nine of his 16 shot attempts as he worked well off the ball for open catch-and-shoot attempts or fearless drives to the hoop with a mix of Cleveland’s starters and bench options.
He followed that up with a 17-point performance in the Garden, hitting seven of his 17 attempts in just under 35.5 minutes played as he again patrolled the perimeter off the ball for open shot attempts. LeVert had his moments on the defensive boards, but made most of his impact on the perimeter, driving inside or kicking it out to open options at the arc.
The 28-year-old guard’s impact on offense and playoff experience will ultimately separate him from Isaac Okoro and may give him an edge over the young forward for the rest of the postseason. Caris LeVert’s activity and willingness to take assignments has remained the same no matter where his role on offense places him, Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said before a 117-94 win over the Washington Wizards in March.
“That’s just the type of dude he is where all he wants to do is be a part of the team and help the team win and he’s been willing to do whatever it takes,” Bickerstaff said. “The thing that I think has been most impressive is he’s been a mainstay on all of our defensive stuff.
“His activity, his willingness to take assignments, that’s never wavered no matter what his offensive role has been. So, he’s been able to hang his hat on that and then find the spots and pick and choose on offense as well.”
For Isaac Okoro
Aside from a chaotic Cavs game-winner over the Nets in March, Isaac Okoro won’t usually bring the flashiest of plays or massive runs when Cleveland needs it the most.
But one can’t count out Okoro’s impact in the regular and postseason, even when he had a more limited role off the bench.
Okoro took on the task of guarding Knicks guard Jalen Brunson in Game 1 and, for a limited time, forward Obi Toppin in Game 3. Though Brunson scored 27 points in Game 1, Okoro’s pressure on the perimeter deterred his first 3-point attempt of the night and helped limit him to 11 for 24 overall in Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.
Bickerstaff did not downplay the difference Okoro could make during the Cavs’ playoff series earlier this month.
“It’d be huge for us,” Bickerstaff said when asked about the possibility of Isaac Okoro returning for the playoffs, via Akron Beacon Journal Sports Writer Nate Ulrich. “Especially you watch his matchups defensively and what he’s able to do and how he can contain the ball and defeat screens and pick and roll, which you’re going to see a bunch of.
“Obviously, we’ve missed him, and he’d be a big boost to us ’cause there’s just so many small things that he does for our team so that other guys just don’t have to do it, and he’s just willing to do those things over and over again, even though they are so difficult.”
Though Caris LeVert’s scoring ability would help fit the win-now mentality the Cavs will have to embrace for the rest of the postseason, it would be more beneficial to keep Isaac Okoro in the starting lineup while having LeVert provide a scoring punch off the bench. Showing confidence and giving valuable minutes to the young forward could impact his overall development while giving the Cavs some extra pressure on the perimeter.
Okoro’s impact on Brunson’s scoring could also be a difference-maker in an electric crowd at Madison Square Garden. LeVert’s scoring and shooting ability will continue to make him an ideal fit as a spark plug off the bench, where he can build up his scoring prowess once New York’s starters leave the court and keep the Cavs going once Cleveland begins to rotate through its starters.
The question must be answered before or during Game 4 of the team’s playoff series, or the Cavaliers will have to fight back from a 3-1 deficit with lingering questions about the team’s rotation.
The Cavs will tip off against the Knicks at 1 p.m. EDT on Sunday in Madison Square Garden. The game will be broadcasted on ABC.