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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

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Why Isaac Okoro will be Cleveland’s X-factor vs. Joel Embiid-less 76ers

With the 76ers down Joel Embiid, Isaac Okoro and the Cavs are looking to capitalize.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are the hottest team in basketball and are an overwhelming favorite at home against the Philadelphia 76ers. A lot of that can be attributed to Cleveland’s hot streak. But Philadelphia is also missing Joel Embiid, the NBA’s reigning MVP, who is sidelined due to a knee injury.

Even without Embiid on the floor, the 76ers still have Tyrese Maxey, a superstar guard and Philadelphia’s second-best player. While Maxey will play, the Philadelphia shouldn’t be a problem for the Cavs to handle because of their defensive ace Isaac Okoro.

All season long, Okoro has made life hell for an opponent’s best perimeter player. He held Damian Lillard to 26.5% shooting and 17.6% from three-point range. While it can never be easy to handle such a daunting assignment for some, Okoro embraces the role. In fact, it’s actually something that he loves to do every game.

“I love it! I love it,” Okoro told ClutchPoints after the team’s morning practice. “That’s my role. That’s my job. It’s going to be something I can continue to be great at.”

Okoro Onslaught

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Isaac Okoro (35) dunks the ball in the third quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at Fiserv Forum.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Other victims of Okoro’s defense include Jalen Brunson, Trae Young, James Harden, and Tyrese Haliburton, and regardless of who it is, the results are the same. If Cleveland wants to slow down an opposing offense, they deploy Okoro off the bench. In this upcoming tilt against Philadelphia, expect the Cavs to do the same if Maxey gets rolling.

But, the plan of defending Maxey by throwing Okoro at him may not be foolproof since the Cavs wing hasn’t defended the 76ers ace this season. He he was unavailable in Cleveland’s 122-119 overtime win against Philadelphia, the only time either squad played this season.

But, in prior matchups between Okoro and Maxey, Cleveland’s defensive stud held the Philadelphia star to 58.% shooting on 12 total attempts. So, with Maxey averaging 25.2 points on 44.3% shooting, 3.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists in 33.1 minutes per game in a world without Embiid, Okoro’s work will be cut out for him. Regardless, with how elite the Cavs have been defensively in this latest stretch, Cleveland could still find the means to keep Maxey from rolling against them.

“It’s a focus and commitment to one another and to the success we have had,” head coach J.B. Bickerstaff shared after the Cavs’ recent win over the Toronto Raptors. “Everybody knows when we defend, we’re very hard to beat. That’s how we get leads. Then, the defense transitions into a thrust offensively. It makes people feel like they are chasing us all night, and they feel suffocated because they can’t catch their breath.”

Cleveland turning up the pressure and building a comfortable cushion before halftime has become the new norm lately. Okoro is the head of the snake, helping Cleveland coil around opponents and strangling their offensive attack.

Since the calendar flipped to 2024, a 19-game stretch in which they own a 17-2 record, the best in the NBA, the Cavs have only trailed for 188 total minutes out of a possible 912. The defensive juggernaut’s emergence is a level of unprecedented dominance, especially in the modern era where the three-point shot tends to erase leads quickly.

Look for Okoro and the Cavs to do the same against Maxey tonight, keeping their win streak alive and showing that they belong among the NBA’s elite.

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