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Cavaliers facing Clippers at home Jan. 29, already in playoff mode

Jan. 28—The Cavaliers just started the second half of their regular season schedule, yet the way Coach J.B. Bickerstaff sees it, they are already in playoff mode. And with good reason.

The Cavs have won nine of their last 10 games, and on Jan. 26 posted arguably their most convincing victory in 2023-24 when they beat the Bucks in Milwaukee, 112-100. Two nights earlier, also in Milwaukee, the Bucks prevailed, 126-116. The Cavs restricted Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokoumpo to 22 points in the rematch two nights after he scored 35 points.

Bickerstaff said he and the Cavs made adjustments during practice the day between games with the Bucks just as they would make adjustments between playoff games.

"This kind of series, you want to prepare for it as if it's a playoff game and use it as practice," Bickerstaff told reporters. "We have young guys who haven't played a ton of playoff basketball. We want to give them that experience.

"How we studied, how we prepared, what we did (between games), we wanted to use this as a dry run for what a playoff game would look like."

Milwaukee is second in the NBA East with a record of 32-14. The Cavs are in fifth place at 27-16, but only 1.5 games behind third-place Philadelphia. The Knicks are fourth in the East a half-game ahead of the Cavs. The way the race is shaping up, the 76ers, Knicks and Cavaliers will be battling for third and fourth place until the regular season ends in April. No one among the three wants to finish fifth because whoever does will not have home-court advantage in the playoffs.

The Cavs face another challenge on Jan. 29 when they host the Clippers at 7 p.m. at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. The Clippers (30-14) are third in the NBA West and are on a five-game winning streak. It will be the fourth straight game for the Cavs against a team with a winning record. Before splitting a pair with the Bucks, they beat the Magic in Orlando. The Magic are fading after a fast start, but they are still over .500 at 23-22.

Bickerstaff credited a player whose numbers don't jump out from the box score for the Cavs success over their red-hot 10-game stretch — Isaac Okoro. Okoro started against the Bucks on Jan. 26 and scored only three points in 31 minutes. He was 1-for-6 from the field and 0-for-4 from the foul line. But Okoro was a reason Milwaukee guard Damian Lillard was just 7-of-24 shooting.

"Isaac is a gem," Bickerstaff told reporters. "If you don't love the game of basketball, or study it or pay attention to it, you can easily miss his value. But if you know basketball and understand what it takes to make a winning team, you know just how valuable he is.

"This league is set up for superstars to be superstars. That means they're going to score a ton of points. You're not going to shut these guys down, but if you can just wear on them for four quarters and make it hard on them, you give your team a chance."

Okoro's assignment in the Ja. 29 game will likely be guarding Kawhi Leonard. Leonard is averaging 23.5 points a game.

CLIPPERS AT CAVALIERS

When: 7 p.m., Jan. 29

Where: Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse

Records: Clippers 30-14, Cavaliers 27-16

TV: Bally Sports Ohio