CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Cleveland Cavaliers breakout dog is back — and they’ve got the jewelry to prove it.
After Saturday night’s gutsy win over the Washington Wizards – a game in which the Cavaliers played multiple zero guard lineups due to premature injuries to Darius Garland (sore back), Caris LeVert (sprained foot) and Rajon Rondo (sprained big toe) – Coach JB Bickerstaff introduced a new post-game tradition.
Instead of addressing the team briefly, then mustering fists for the usual celebratory breakdown, Bickerstaff unveiled a bespoke gold chain and wrapped it around Isaac Okoro’s neck.
The Junkyard Dog Award.
“It’s a symbol of what we appreciate,” Bickerstaff told cleveland.com after the 92-86 win. “It’s something that was created by our guys, so we tried to come up with something that would celebrate that and add to our culture. We wanted to celebrate their mentality.
Months ago, before the Cavs’ unexpected rise, players were talking about adopting a dog mentality – intractable, gritty, tough, relentless. They were proud of it. Swingman Lamar Stevens even started barking, which became the team’s signature. It brought them together, reminding them of how they should play.
Now 60 games into the season, the Cavs are still barking. Before and after practice. Before the denunciation. After big plays – dunks, blocks, saves, strips, hustle play, 50-50 balls, clutch shots, forced turnovers. In the dressing room after the victories.
It started with the players. It is widespread throughout the rest of the organization. Even the fans do, just like Saturday night when Okoro shoved the ball away from Kyle Kuzma and completely disrupted Washington’s set play late in the fourth quarter.
The channel is an ode to that. It will be given to a player after each win – an uplifting and meaningful ritual. A little extra incentive to be tenacious.
“It’s a team sport,” Bickerstaff said. “We have to bring people together. It’s the only way to make it work. It’s the only way to win. »
Bickerstaff began the process of making the chain months ago. The finished product was unveiled Saturday night – a giant Cavs “C” logo. It is gold with many jewels and special engravings. The five core values - details, tenacity, together, competition, 1 Plus – are presented. “JYD” is on the back. There’s a sprinkling of other intricate details – a combination of meaningful team markings and other ties to lore.
The award does not necessarily go to the player with the most points, assists or rebounds. It is reserved for the most granular, the most powerful. In Bickerstaff’s own words, the guy who brings the most junk.
It’s only fitting that Okoro – whose in-development game is defined by these traits – became the first recipient.
“He’s the type of player who can honestly score zero points and be the most impactful player on the court,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s not sexy, people don’t write about it, but his impact on winning has been unparalleled since he’s been here with us. We’ve put him in extremely difficult situations since he arrived. he was a rookie here, and he never flinched, never wavered. The only thing he does is try to help us win. And he earns it in the effort, he wins it. wins in a way that most people don’t want to. I think we’re lucky to have him.
Saturday night summed up the value of Okoro. The rising sophomore star scored six points, going 3 of 7 from the field. It’s the third time in the last four games that it’s been in single digits. Not ideal on a night, the Cavs lacked an abundance of offensive firepower. And yet, with Okoro on the floor, Cleveland edged Washington with a game-best 18 points.
He started harassing wizard shooter Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at night. Okoro relentlessly pursued the constantly moving sniper and kept him from getting a clean look. Caldwell-Pope, who had 24 points a night earlier against San Antonio, finished with 14 of 4 of 10 from the field, including 0 of 2 from 3-point range.
Then in the fourth quarter, with the scorching Kyle Kuzma torching the Cavaliers, Bickerstaff and his aides made a game-changing adjustment. There was no other choice. It was Okoro’s turn to try to calm Kuzma down. Despite giving up about four inches, Okoro chased Kuzma in record time. With Kuzma contained, Washington’s offense faded. Kuzma scored just six of his game-high 34 points in the fourth.
“You’re not going to see Isaac’s flashiest numbers every night, but the impact he has on us off the pitch and defensively, and just our morale as a team, you can’t tell. just don’t put it in numbers,” Jarrett Allen said of Okoro. “It’s intangible. It gets us going. just does all the little things you can ask for.
Since joining the NBA, Okoro has been tasked with keeping the best of the opposition. It is his role. He savors it. Bickerstaff trusts him.
James Harder. Bradley Beall. Trae Young. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Cade Cunningham. Kyrie Irving. Zach LaVine. Defeat Murray. Jayson Tatum. Anybody. Everyone. One to four. Pick up the full yard. Put pressure on ball carriers. Difficult shots. Fight through screens. Do the extra rotation. Diving for lost bullets.
Fight, smash, hustle.
“We are looking to play physically all the time,” Okoro said. “The effort should always be there. It shouldn’t be an excuse.
In four games against Washington this season, Okoro has held Kuzma to 16 total points on 3-of-10 from the field and 1-of-4 from 3-point range. Kuzma only made one field goal when defended by Okoro on Saturday night – a difficult, off-balance fade with Okoro draped over him.
“He’s shown he can do things offensively too, but his defense is amazing and keeps us going,” Markkanen said of Okoro. “He makes quick plays and rebounds. I think everyone else goes too. It’s a very big chunk of it. We always talk about the three-man roster, but having him in the guard spot is huge for us.
The junkyard dog collar — similar to a football turnover chain — took a while to complete. But he came at the right time.
Amid a tight Eastern Conference playoff race, the Cavs entered Saturday night on a three-game losing streak. They hadn’t been themselves lately, losing the grip of that defense-focused identity. Prior to the All-Star break, rebuilding Indiana, Philadelphia and Atlanta all eclipsed the 100-point mark. In the first-half finale, the Hawks scored 124 points, second Cleveland dropped all season.
Then came the disappointing loss in Detroit two nights earlier, which forced a miffed Bickerstaff to deliver a direct and clear message about playing to a certain standard, with the kind of effort and attitude that sparked this reversal season.
“We played so hard in those first 58 games and we can’t let go now, having achieved all of that,” Cedi Osman said. “It’s time to get to the playoffs. It’s time to go one step further. That’s what JB challenged us to. The loss to Detroit wasn’t us. I’m not trying to underestimate anyone, but we know we can be better and we have to be better.
“It’s really important to win when you’re playing badly. It was one of those games, but I don’t think we gave up. We lost a few bodies, we were down in the score, but we still kept playing. And I think that’s what makes us special. It was really important to answer tonight. I believe we took a step forward tonight to become the old Cavaliers.
It certainly looked like it. Unattractive, low-scoring game. Multiple efforts. Suffocating defense. Disputed moves. Offensive rebounds. Heart. Hustle. Resilience. To resolve.
“It was a chore,” Bickerstaff said. “These are individuals who decided they were going to have an impact on the outcome. They kind of knew where we were at this point. Every game we win will have to start on the defensive side of the pitch. It’s the only way to give yourself a chance. We can’t afford to be pretty and sweet through things right now. That hasn’t been our identity thus far, and when you’re missing so many parts of your offense, you have to find something else. We must, as individuals and as a team, outperform the man and the team in front of us.
Despite being more than 41 minutes behind, Cleveland rallied from a nine-point deficit in the final six minutes, edging the Wizards 17-2 in that streak.
The comeback was fueled by Okoro, who took over the defense late and proudly walked through the locker room with that shiny new gold medallion around his neck.
Okoro is the embodiment of the Cavs identity. The junkyard dog that sets the tone.
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