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Mission possible: Cavaliers' Isaac Okoro called top perimeter defender in NBA

Mar. 11—The classic television show "Mission: Impossible" always began with the group leader of the Impossible Missions Force, Jim Phelps, finding a hidden tape recorder. He presses the "play" button and hears the words, "Your mission, Jim, should you decide to accept it..." And then the tape self-destructs.

Isaac Okoro is the leader of the Cavaliers' Impossible Missions Force, and every game the Cavs play, he accepts the mission assigned to him by Coach J.B. Bickerstaff: Guard the opponent's best shot maker. In the case of the Phoenix Suns, the Cavaliers' opponent March 11 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, 6-foot-6 Devin Booker and 6-foot-4 Grayson Allen fit the bill.

Allen averages 13 points a game and leads the NBA with a .470 shooting percentage on 3-point attempts. Booker is averaging 27.5 points a game, but isn't quite as prolific on 3s. Booker is averaging 5.8 attempts from beyond the arc and cashing on 2.2 attempts per game. Allen is attempting 5.7 3s and hitting on 2.7 per game.

"Isaac is the best perimeter defender in the league, hands down," Bickerstaff said recently. "He doesn't get enough credit for it because it's defense and people don't think it's sexy, but there is no one in the league that can do the things Isaac Okoro can do on the defensive end of the floor.

"There is no other player in the NBA who can keep his man in front of him and force people into tough shots the way that Isaac Okoro can. There is no other player in the NBA who can get through screens and get back in front of his man so that we don't have to help and can play one-on-one defense the way that Isaac Okoro can."

Okoro played 39 minutes and stole the ball from the Suns four times. At various times he guarded Booker, Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant. Durant was unstoppable. He was 14 of 26 from the field and scored 37 points in the 117-111 Phoenix victory.

"Isaac is steady," Bickerstaff said after the game. "He does the job. He makes things extremely difficult on people. (The Suns) have three of the most prolific scorers we've ever seen.

"They're tough matchups out there. Against those guys, all you can do is make it tough, and I thought Isaac did that."

The Cavaliers, 41-24, led the Suns by 19 in the second quarter, but they scored only 41 points in the second half. The Cavs are 22-13 at home and 19-11 on the road. They are one game behind second-place Milwaukee and 3.5 games ahead of the fourth-place Knicks.

Coach J.B. Bickerstaff breaks down the #Cavaliers 117-111 loss to the Suns Monday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. The Cavs had a 19-point lead in the second quarter, but had no answer for Suns star Kevin Durant. pic.twitter.com/rMXYtCC59c

— Jeff Schudel (@jsproinsider) March 12, 2024

Last week the Cavaliers took down Eastern Conference leader Boston, 105-104, and Western Conference leader Minnesota, 113-104 in overtime, in a span of 72 hours at the FieldHouse. They lost a road game in Atlanta in between beating the Celtics and Timberwolves.

Okoro played 31 minutes and scored 16 points against the Celtics. He guarded Jaylen Brown most of the night and held Brown to 8-of-20 shooting. Okoro defends well without piling up fouls, too. He was whistled just once in the Boston game.

The Timberwolves played the Pacers the night before playing the Cavs. Anthony Edwards was 18-of-35 and scored 44 points in a 113-111 Minnesota victory. Then he met the Isaac Okoro roadblock. Edwards was 7-of-27, including 0-for-7 on 3s. Edwards scored 19 points but committed five turnovers.

"That's a big ask to go out and guard Anthony Edwards," Cavs center Jarrett Allen said after the game with the Timberwolves. "Isaac did it. He took the challenge for all 53 minutes — and he got the job done. It was excellent."

The Cavaliers selected Okoro with the fifth pick of the 2020 draft precisely because they wanted to improve defensively. Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl gave Okoro a ringing endorsement prior to the draft.

"He is the best defensive guard I think I've ever coached," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. "He can guard 1 through 5. I've never had a player be able to do that.

"Big, strong, physical and wants to defend. He wants the opponent's best player. And offensively, he's just very productive."

Nothing has changed about Okoro's will to defend. The Cavaliers need his willingness to sacrifice more than ever with scorers Donovan Mitchell (knee), Max Strus (knee) and Evan Mobley (ankle) still nursing lingering injuries.

"I always try to be physical," Okoro said. "That's the No. 1 thing, Those guys I guard are so talented and in the NBA, offense has an advantage over the defense. You're always retreating, backing up. The offense is going to have its way with you.

"They're going to draw fouls and they're going to take you to the paint. You always have to be physical. If a guy scores on me one time in a game, I'm able to instantly read it the next time he tries to come at me and correct my mistakes from there."

Okoro this season is averaging a career-best 9.7 points and a career-best 1.2 three-point baskets per game.