CLEVELAND — They say Jarrett Allen was so sick Wednesday with a stomach bug that he could barely keep down the only thing he’d eaten all day, a PBJ.
But Allen toughed it out for the good of his red-hot teammates, and because of it, the Cleveland Cavaliers had their original starting five on the court for the first time in forever and just the 12th time all season in a 128-121 win over the Detroit Pistons.
Yes, it is a grand time to be associated with the Cleveland basketballers. Darius Garland played Wednesday for the first time since Dec. 14, when he broke his jaw, and scored 19 points in 20 minutes. Donovan Mitchell tied his season high of 45 points (20 in the fourth quarter!), and again led the team with eight assists, even though Garland was back. Evan Mobley returned from knee surgery Monday, and while he was better against the LA Clippers statistically, he did take a 3-pointer against the Pistons — something they want to see more of from him. Allen, you know, a ho-hum 14 points and 11 rebounds in 30 minutes, while ill. The guy is a walking double-double.
There is more to the story of the win over Detroit as far as individual performances go, but in the interest of brevity, let’s speed ahead to the big picture: the Cavs have been the best team in the NBA over the last month and a half, winners of 11 of the last 12 and 16 of 20, and did we mention they’re finally healthy?
“We’re going to be good,” said Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff, with an air of confidence and assurance that should make spines tingle all along the north shore. “Once we get an opportunity to kind of just let it all settle in, we’ll figure each other out, and we won’t have those ups and downs that we had tonight.”
Right, a 7-point win over the NBA’s worst team (record-wise, but I’m wondering how long that will last — the Pistons are playing like adults now and look a lot better than they did during their record 28-game losing streak) in which Detroit led by 5 in the fourth quarter may not sound great. But if we’re giving benefits of the doubt, Garland and Mobley are both on minute restrictions, Allen was sick, and, as you’re about to see, Bickerstaff has some work to do figuring out the Cavs’ rotation now that all men are on deck.
This was not Cleveland’s best defensive game by any measure, and those measurements say the Cavs are fourth in the NBA in opponent field-goal percentage. Well, in the second quarter Wednesday, they were 30th in that category. The Pistons shot 79 percent from the field. Also, the Cavs only put up 35 3-pointers for the game, a departure from the 40-plus they aim for, and a part of that is the challenge of playing Mobley and Allen (two non-shooting bigs) together. My friend and colleague Jason Lloyd covered this angle brilliantly for you Tuesday morning.
My mind is also on 3s, and on the Cavs’ immediate future, but particularly on a player on this roster who has contributed to the winning. A player who was once the last pick of the NBA Draft, but is no longer Mr. Irrelevant, certainly not in Cleveland. He is only 27 but is already a journeyman. He’s been traded twice. Waived twice. Signed to a 10-day contract. Spent most of a season in the G League.
And now, because January has (finally) ended, Sam Merrill has the second-most 3s by a Cavaliers’ bench player for one month in team history.
I’m thinking about him because while Garland and Mobley were out, he didn’t just fill in. He performed well above replacement and helped transform the Cavs from what they were to what they are now — a fun, 3-point-gunning, pass-and-cutting juggernaut. He has earned playing time even with a full boat, and to his credit, Bickerstaff agrees.
“I’ve got to do my best to keep him on the floor,” Bickerstaff said.
Merrill cuts, screens, and moves without the ball like another former Cavs sharpshooter, Kyle Korver. The angles he takes running off of screens, slipping over to the 3-point line after he’s set one, and certainly the rapid nature of his shooting release are, maybe not quite uncanny, but pretty close to the way Korver used to do it. And you should know the three 3-pointers Merrill connected on Wednesday moved him past Korver into second place in Cavs history for 3s in a month by a reserve, with 44. Only Kevin Love (47 in December 2021) had more.
Because Korver is 6-foot-7 and Merrill, who is 6-4, he told me he hadn’t studied Korver quite as much as some of the other great NBA shooters who move without the ball. But then Merrill said: “From coming off screens, and his form, his quick release, is something I’ve tried to emulate.”
It took me 71 minutes Wednesday morning to find my car keys. I bring this up because, well, Merrill claims to have not studied Korver as much as he’s studied Cavs teammate Max Strus, former Cav and NBA 3-point champ Joe Harris (now of the Pistons’ bench, near the end of it), Seth Curry and Duncan Robinson. And yet, Merrill has enough memory of Korver’s form to say this: “When he’s coming off his left shoulder, he has a little leg kick, and I’ve tried to emulate that.”
The Cavs say he plays defense through “geometry,” and what they mean is he takes precise angles to get over screens or to close out shooters, or cut off would-be drivers — much the way he moves when he is on offense. They say he is good at it — defense, I mean — a two-way player in a way many smaller shooters are not.
But Merrill doesn’t stand out for his size or strength. He can’t guard above his position like Isaac Okoro and is shorter than Strus, Georges Niang and Dean Wade, which takes him out of consideration for the small forward position. He has never been an All-Star or signed a contract with nine digits in front of the decimal point, like Mitchell and Garland. He isn’t even the Cavs’ dedicated sixth man and backup ballhandler. That’s Caris LeVert.
All of which is to say, Merrill knows the score, knows the competition for playing time is tight, and it will be a challenge for Bickerstaff to live up to his edict to keep Merrill on the floor.
“Everyone understands that we have a lot of guys and only so many minutes,” Merrill said. “So for me, I’m just, you know, one, I never take an opportunity to play for granted — just because of what I’ve been through. So if it’s 5 minutes or 15 or 20, I can go and try and do my thing. I’m just going to be confident. As long as I feel like I’m playing good, winning basketball …
“Some things are out of your hands, so just try to be the best that I can.”
Playing a 10-man rotation is challenging in the regular season, and even more difficult in the playoffs. For now, Bickerstaff said, he’s going to let his top 10 play in the first half, and then the minutes will go to who deserves them most in the second. Merrill, for instance, scored all 11 of his points against the Pistons in the first half. He returned in the third quarter but his stint didn’t last long against a bigger Detroit lineup, and he was out of the game for good with 16 total minutes to his name.
But Merrill is the Cavs’ best 3-point shooter. He is making 43.3 percent of the 5.7 3-point attempts he takes per game. Only Mitchell makes more 3s per game than the 2.5 Merrill makes, but Mitchell also attempts more than nine of them each night. This is the era of the 3-ball in the NBA, the best teams often shoot them the most, the Cavs have been better since they committed themselves to shooting 3s, and Merrill was a key contributor in that movement.
It’s a good problem to have — a bench full of players who deserve to play, which is precisely what the Cavs have and something they didn’t have about this time a year ago.
Merrill is definitely among them. And hey, he moves and shoots like Korver.
“I’ve had people tell me that,” Merrill said.
(Top photo of Darius Garland: Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)