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Depth surfaces as Cavaliers' starters fight through injuries | Jeff Schudel

Mar. 8—The Cavaliers on March 8 were without starters Donovan Mitchell, Max Strus and Evan Mobley when they hosted the Timberwolves at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. And they're one of the fortunate teams in the NBA because all three are expected back from their injuries before March ends.

Good fortune had nothing to do with the way the Cavs beat the T-Wolves, 113-104, in overtime. Jarrett Allen scored 10 of his 33 points in the overtime. Darius Garland scored six of his 34 points after regulation.

The NBA season isn't just about determining which team is superior. It has become a contest of which front offices can best build a team that can survive the attrition caused by injuries.

Georges Niang started for the third time this season and finished with 16 points to help beat Minnesota. Nine players saw the floor in a rugged game with the Western Conference-leading Timberwolves. Mobley, Mitchell and Strus missed the 105-104 win over the Celtics with their injuries.

"Everybody came in and contributed," Allen said after beating Minnesota. "Even Damian Jones and Craig (Porter Jr.). They didn't get the most minutes, but they were impactful for the game. It just shows we have guys all across the board, one through 18 now, that can play."

The injury plague around the league in 2023-24 isn't a one-off. Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said he has "a lot of theories" why injuries are prevalent. He shared one before the Cavs and Timberwolves played.

"I think the specialization of the kids at a young age has an impact on the guys that we get now," Bickerstaff said. "I think we see guys who are coming out of college that are one and done who already have screws in places or have had major injuries and those types of things.

"So I do think the specialization of these kids so young, where they don't get to work different muscles and they're always training and working the same muscles over and over again, I do think it has a long-term impact on them."

The Timberwolves were clinging to a half-game lead in the NBA West before facing the Cavaliers, but the spot on top is precarious because star center Karl Anthony-Towns is facing surgery to repair a torn meniscus. The Wolves are hoping he'll be back in time for the playoffs.

Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid has been out since Feb. 1 with a meniscus injury that required surgery. The Sixers expect him back in early April. Injuries have sunk the Knicks to a slippery fifth place in the East, 12 games behind the first-place Celtics. The Knicks are only one game ahead of the Sixers and Heat, who are tied for sixth, and just two games ahead of the eighth-place Pacers. Only the top six teams are guaranteed a spot in the playoffs without getting involved in the play-in tournament.

"(Depth) is extremely important in order to survive an 82-game season," Bickerstaff said. "It's all around the league. The Eastern Conference has been decimated by injuries. And then obviously you see the Towns thing.

"So there's something that I think as a league we've got to figure out. But in order to survive that, at the beginning of the year you have to stockpile your ammunition. And I think (president of basketball operations Koby Altman) and Ganz (GM Mike Gansey) and those guys in the front office have done a great job of giving us a depth of talent."

Tristan Thompson, a center, did not play against the Timberwolves, but he isn't injured. He betrayed his teammates and coaches by taking human growth hormones that are banned by the NBA. He is serving a 25-game suspension for the offense. He is eligible to return March 18 when the Cavs play the Rockets in Houston.

Thompson was part of the depth Altman planned for at the beginning of the season. But even without him, the Cavs are deeper than they were a year ago because Niang was signed in free agency and because Dean Wade, in his fifth season with the Cavs, has taken on a more prominent role recently.

Sam Merrill is in his fourth NBA season and second as a Cavalier. He has already played a season-high 45 games and is averaging 16 minutes and 7.9 points a game.

Donovan's knee injury will be re-evaluated on March 9, Bickerstaff said. The coach said Strus has no structural damage to the injured knee, but the Cavs will not rush Strus back. He played 60 straight games before missing the last three.

Mobley already missed six weeks earlier this season recovering from knee surgery. He will be re-evaluated sometime next week.

NETS AT CAVALIERS

When: 7 p.m., March 10

Where: Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse

Record: Brooklyn 25-38 (through March 8), Cavaliers 41-22

TV: Bally Sports Ohio