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Caris LeVert's defensive effort giving Cavs lift: 'I'm just trying to get in playoff mode'

Cavaliers guard Caris LeVert dunks against the Rockets during the first half, Sunday, March 26, 2023, in Cleveland.
Cavaliers guard Caris LeVert dunks against the Rockets during the first half, Sunday, March 26, 2023, in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND — The defensive identity of the Cavaliers has fueled the franchise en route to its first playoff berth in 25 years without LeBron James, and Columbus native Caris LeVert's recent contributions have been crucial.

“I'm just trying to get in playoff mode, to be honest with you, just trying to lock in on every aspect,” LeVert told the Beacon Journal on Sunday night after the Cavs defeated the visiting Houston Rockets 108-91.

LeVert scored 10 points, which included a 3-pointer with 4:40 left to play and a slam dunk off a steal with 4:20 remaining, when the Cavs (48-28) clinched a spot in the upcoming postseason by defeating the Rockets (18-57).

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With starting swingman Isaac Okoro sidelined for the entire second half because of left knee soreness he's been enduring lately, LeVert began the third quarter on the floor and finished with 31 minutes off the bench. He realizes the Cavs are counting on him to deliver defensively.

“It's kind of my role on this team,” he said, “so I'm just trying to embrace it.”

Cavaliers guard Caris LeVert drives against Philadelphia 76ers guard Shake Milton during the first half, Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in Cleveland.
Cavaliers guard Caris LeVert drives against Philadelphia 76ers guard Shake Milton during the first half, Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in Cleveland.

It was the eighth consecutive game in which LeVert scored 10-plus points and the 11th in a row in which he has registered at least one steal — a testament to the guard's active hands and strength at the point of attack. The Cavs rank first in the NBA in defensive rating (109.6) this season.

“Caris, in one of our first meetings, said to me, 'I'm extremely adaptable. Just tell me what you need from me,'” Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “And he's lived up to that.

“His teammates love it when he gets a deflection, a steal and a breakout dunk. [They] love it because they know how much he's sacrificing and giving for the team.”

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Cleveland Cavaliers guard Caris LeVert shoots over Brooklyn Nets forward Yuta Watanabe during the first half, Tuesday, March 21, 2023, in New York.
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Caris LeVert shoots over Brooklyn Nets forward Yuta Watanabe during the first half, Tuesday, March 21, 2023, in New York.

Don't forget the Cavs would not have pulled off their 116-114 comeback victory Thursday over the Brooklyn Nets if it weren't for LeVert's steals with 1:18 and 13.3 seconds left. He turned the first one into a fast-break layup. The second one resulted in All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell being fouled.

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Mitchell made the first free throw with 11.6 left, but he missed the second, whereupon LeVert gathered the loose ball, which counted as a rebound, and then dished an assist on Okoro's game-winning 3-pointer with 0.7 seconds remaining.

“I like to win, so I'm super competitive,” LeVert said. “I think that's something that I've always been, and it's just kind of something that's just in me. I love close games, being in close games, end-of-quarter situations, end-of-halves situations, end-of-game situations. I thrive in those moments.”

Cavaliers guard Caris LeVert shoots over Raptors guard Gary Trent Jr. during the first half, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023, in Cleveland.
Cavaliers guard Caris LeVert shoots over Raptors guard Gary Trent Jr. during the first half, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023, in Cleveland.

LeVert, 28, has been a target of criticism from fans who expected more when the Cavs acquired him in February 2022 in a trade with the Indiana Pacers. And trade speculation swirled around him this year in the buildup to the NBA's Feb. 9 trade deadline.

Yet the Cavs kept LeVert, who will be a free agent in the offseason, and he has has proved to be valuable as their sixth man.

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Without being asked, Mitchell praised LeVert and forward Evan Mobley on Sunday for their defensive efforts.

“Caris is finding himself,” Mitchell said. “This is the Caris LeVert that we all know. I think during the year he was trying to figure things out and where he fits in.”

Solving the puzzle in time for the playoffs could provide a significant boost.

Nate Ulrich can be reached at nulrich@thebeaconjournal.com. On Twitter: @ByNateUlrich.

Rockets forward Usman Garuba has the ball stripped as he drives to the basket between Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen (31) and guard Caris LeVert (3) during the first half, March 26, 2023, in Cleveland.
Rockets forward Usman Garuba has the ball stripped as he drives to the basket between Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen (31) and guard Caris LeVert (3) during the first half, March 26, 2023, in Cleveland.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cavaliers guard Caris LeVert making difference with defense