The Cleveland Cavaliers were so close last year.

Before the flashes of potential shown by forward Evan Mobley and head coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s calls for center Jarrett Allen to win Defensive Player of the Year, the Cavs earned the seventh-highest defensive rating in what would be Bickerstaff’s second year as the team’s full-time head coach, according to Basketball Reference.

The Cavs’ defense showed a meteoric rise for a team that once hosted a one-hour film session to fix its issues with then-head coach John Beilein in 2019. The Cavaliers finished 29th in defensive rating that year with 116.41 points allowed per 100 possessions, only trailing the 25-47 Washington Wizards by 0.29 points for the league’s worst-ranked defense. Three Central Division rivals, one of whom nearly held a full-blown mutiny against their head coach the year before, all ranked in the league’s top half in defensive rating.

The Cavaliers continued to show steady improvement under Bickerstaff, rising the ranks until they ranked third in the Eastern Conference in defensive rating.

Still, the Cavs needed more.

Even as Jarrett Allen averaged a double-double and swatted away 1.7 shots per game in what would be his first full season with the team, Cleveland allowed an average of 111 points during its two Play-In games before the Eastern Conference playoffs. The 8th-seeded Cavs could not hold off the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks in the Play-In, causing the Cavs to slip and miss the playoffs for the fourth-straight season.

Bickerstaff didn’t let the losses deter him from keeping a positive mindset. Even before the start of the season, he harped on keeping a consistent identity and playing to the team’s strengths during Cavs media day.

“It’s about embracing who you are,” Bickerstaff said. “Those (lofty) expectations don’t bring any added pressure. We have a talented group of players in that locker room who support each other, are there for one another and want to compete for one another. 

“That’s where we want to focus on. If we do the right things, good things will happen for this group. We believe that if we play with the same spirit and defended the way we did last year, positive things will happen for us.”

While good things were asked, what the Cavs were granted was nothing less than extraordinary.

The team is on top of the NBA with a league-high defensive rating, allowing 109.6 points per 100 possessions.

Even ESPN senior writer Zach Lowe couldn’t help but notice the team’s ability to lock down their opponents at their full strength.

“Cleveland’s defense — No. 1 in points allowed per possession — is legit,” Lowe wrote. “We are two seasons into this, and there is nothing to suggest anything fluky.”

They may not have the most potent offense in the NBA. Still, the Cavaliers have carved an identity of excellence in keeping opposing scorers at bay with a combination of mobile, intelligent and determined bigs and active guards.

Giant leaps from Cleveland’s bigs

A small step forward from Cleveland’s big duo meant a giant leap for this team’s interior defense.

The Cavs’ duo of young starting bigs is combining for 13.1 defensive rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game, playing a vital role for a defense that ranks third in the NBA in points allowed in the paint per game. The Cavaliers only place behind the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat after they placed 12th the season before.

When the Cavs pair Jarrett Allen with a 7-foot forward in Mobley, finding easy looks and building a consistent rhythm in the paint can become an even more difficult challenge for some of the more formidable teams in the Eastern Conference.

“They’re hard to score on in the paint,” Bickerstaff said. “(Evan Mobley) is an All-Defensive Team 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.”

The team’s starting big duo’s strengths aren’t purely limited to within a few feet of the basket. Scoring on or setting up competitive possessions in or near the paint has become nothing less than a difficulty for even the best of NBA playmakers, as Lowe highlighted in his recent column.

“Mobley is so fast for his size,” Lowe wrote. “Combined, they are gigantic. When they are both on patrol with their arms spread, they disrupt the expectations of ball handlers. The NBA unfolds in patterns. Teams use the same actions over and over. Ball handlers know: When I get here, this pass is available.”

“Mobley and Allen upend those assumptions. Suddenly there are arms and hands where there is supposed to be empty space.”

That’s not to say the guards haven’t done their part.

Guard play all day

After he laughed and told a story involving associate head coach Greg Buckner about messing up a call to set the nail on defense, Cavs guard Donovan Mitchell’s tone changed when asked what he wanted to do better defensively than he had in the past during a late-September practice.

“I think a lot of it, for me, is focus and attention to detail,” Mitchell said. “I said it on the radio the other day. I don’t have to do as much offensively. I’m able to lock in on those possessions and I’m not tired. Less tired. I’m getting in better shape to be able to play both sides of the ball.”

“It’s not the ability. I can play defense; I know that for a fact. I haven’t shown that & that’s what I’m looking forward to do here.”

He made a bold promise that afternoon. Not just to show Cleveland and beyond that he can defend with the best of them, but to keep the Cavs’ stellar defensive rating at the level it had been the season before.

“Top 5 defense,” he said. “I’m not here to bring that down.”

Mitchell owns a defensive rating of 110.7, meaning he allowed more than five points above the career-high of 105.1 he set his rookie year, according to Statemuse. Though he still ranks in the bottom half of his career defensive ratings, Mitchell averages 4.9 points per possession less than the league average. He is 0.4 away from tying his Cavalier teammate in forward Isaac Okoro.

Cleveland’s guards remain as active as ever when their opponents swing the ball around on the perimeter, using a “new urgency” to cut off passing attempts and options on the perimeter should driving players find themselves in a bad situation.

“Cleveland’s guards are doing their part,” wrote Lowe. “When they opened the season defending with new urgency, it was tempting to chalk it up to week one enthusiasm: This will fade.

“It hasn’t.”

The Cavs’ defense showed its full strength in a 113-95 win over the Houston Rockets. Guard Jalen Green was limited to six points on 2-9 shooting as Okoro was guarding him, while the Cavs tacked on 40 points off of turnovers on the Rockets’ home court.

“(Okoro) came in with that challenge,” Garland told Bally Sports Ohio sideline reporter Serena Winters. “He came in with that mentality that he was going to lock (Green) down.

“That’s what we did tonight.”

The Cavs’ defense may have found itself at what can be considered the top of the league, but even the best will always have room to improve.

Room for improvement?

Though the 6-foot-5-inch Okoro can hold his own against opposing guards, the Cavs may need to look for other options on the trade market to truly defend the league’s taller small forwards.

“The Cavs need someone to guard 6-8 wing types,” Lowe wrote. “That is Okoro by default. We’ll see how Dean Wade and Ricky Rubio enter this equation.”

Neither of the team’s rumored trade options, Pistons forward Bojan Bogdanovic and Dallas Mavericks guard Tim Hardaway Jr., can genuinely fit that role. Wizards forward Kelly Oubre Jr. was “on Cleveland’s radar” before he underwent surgery on a torn ligament in his left hand, according to Cavs reporter Chris Fedor.

The Cavs could also afford to try for a defensive anchor at the backup center spot. Other than Robin Lopez, the Cavs do not have a true center on the roster who is averaging 8.6 minutes per game in 25 games played for the Cavaliers.

Either way, Cavs Nation, keep nothing less than high expectations for this defense. With time, and an extra piece, the Cavaliers will make their mark on any team in April for the first time since 2018.