Caris LeVert rewards Cavaliers’ belief, finds himself in 41-point night

INDEPENDENCE — When it came to guard Caris LeVert, Cavaliers coach JB Bickerstaff kept an open mind heading into this season.

Bickerstaff realized he didn’t see the real LeVert in the 19 games he played for the Cavs after a Feb. 6 trades from the Indiana Pacers.

When he arrived, LeVert was coming off a 42-point performance, the third-best of his career, against the Chicago Bulls. But he was dealing with a nagging injury that needed rehab. The trade happened in stunning fashion, just as the two teams were to square off at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. He suffered a bone bruise in his foot with the Cavs in late February that cost him nine games.

LeVert never developed a rhythm with his new team.

In Friday night’s 132-123 overtime victory at the Boston Celtics, LeVert rediscovered his old self. A Columbus native, LeVert scored 41 points with seven assists, four rebounds and three steals.

Guard Donovan Mitchell also totaled 41, making them only the second pair of Cavs to score 40 or more points in the same game (regular season or playoffs), joining Kyrie Irving and LeBron James in Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals.

According to Elias Sports, it was only the second time since 1970-71 that two backcourt starters each scored 40 in a regular-season game. The other tandem was Isiah Thomas (47) and John Long (41) for the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 13, 1983.

LeVert came to the interview room at TD Garden wearing the Junkyard Dog chain, which he described as an award given to the Cavs player who does the most “dirty work” in victories.

“It’s big for me,” LeVert told the media in Boston of his performance. “My teammates have incredible belief in me throughout any makes, misses, bad games, good games, they’re telling me to keep going. They make it easy on me. My coaches, same thing.”

Bickerstaff hadn’t wavered in his faith in LeVert. He earned the starting small forward spot in a training camp battle among six players. Then when point guard Darius Garland suffered a left eyelid laceration in the Oct. 19 season opener at the Toronto Raptors, LeVert became the 2 guard alongside Mitchell and ramped up his aggressiveness.

But LeVert had fought to score, his previous season-high of 14 points coming in a Game 2 victory in Chicago.

There must be something about the Garden, because LeVert put up his career-high of 51 points there while with the Brooklyn Nets on March 3, 2020. LeVert’s previous best with the Cavs was 32 points against the Dallas Mavericks on March 30, 2022.

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“We know what Caris is capable of,” Bickerstaff said after practice Saturday at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “We’ve seen him do it at a high level before, in critical games. The fair thing to do is allow him to get comfortable and then judge him based on that.

“Last year for him was a mess and it’s unfair to judge him as he was trying to go through all that. He had a great summer, we’re obviously hopeful that he gets all these games and preseason, training camp, and all that stuff, and we’ll judge him on that, and I think everybody will see what type of player he really is .”

Cavs All-Star center Jarrett Allen played with LeVert for over three seasons with the Nets. Then on Jan. 13, 2021, Allen was dealt to the Cavs, LeVert to the Pacers in the multi-team James Harden trade. Allen and LeVert were reunited 13 months later.

“Caris is getting more back to himself,” Allen said Saturday. “The trade, I think he was going through injuries, but I’m not exactly sure. But now he is getting back to his form. He’s getting the confidence back to be the man he was.”

Through five games for the Cavs (4-1), who hosted the New York Knicks (3-2) Sunday, LeVert is averaging 17.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 6.4 assists, and shooting .379 from the field and .552 from long range .

The latter stat is an aberration, he said Friday night.

“Honestly this is the best start I’ve gotten beyond the arc, it’s been a little weird,” LeVert said in Boston. “Usually I get off to a slow start from 3 and I’m making every other shot. It’s been a little reverse this year.

“I try not to get too down on myself and play the other parts of the game. It’s not the offense and scoring. Defense, rebounding and everything, I think that kind of keeps me in the game.”

Bickerstaff believes LeVert needed the complete game against the Celtics, especially since he was averaging 11.5 points and shooting .289 from the field coming in. At Boston, LeVert made 12 of 21 (.571) shots from the field and 6 of 8 (.750) 3-pointers.

“Just in watching his shots and the struggle for the shot to go in, I think it was big for him to see that he can do both,” Bickerstaff said. “So that question doesn’t linger in your mind that I’m putting all this effort defensively, but I’m not seeing the results offensively even though I’m getting to my spot.

“Just the reinforcement that he is capable of doing both at a high level I think is going to be huge.”

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Bickerstaff believes LeVert’s improved fitness level has been crucial to his contributions. LeVert changed his diet, going with a keto plan, and adjusted his offseason workouts.

“He is in extreme conditions,” Bickerstaff said. “The past 2½ months since he’s been back, every single rep he’s done has been at full speed. Last year with the injuries and with the trade, it’s hard to stay in great shape that way.

“We talk about the 41 he had last night, but he was all over the floor defensively, too. He made huge offensive rebounds that he hustled to go and get and then ran to the corner and makes a 3 to put us up one. To be able to make that hustle play and then have the legs underneath you to go ahead and make that shot, the fitness piece to me has been next level.”

Cavs guard Darius Garland won’t play Sunday against New York Knicks

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Darius Garland cheers on his team from the bench during an overtime period of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, Sunday, Oct.  23, 2022, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Darius Garland cheers on his team from the bench during an overtime period of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Garland will miss his fifth consecutive game Sunday due to the eye injury. He participated in practice Saturday, but Bickerstaff said the Cavs didn’t do any live action drills and Garland has yet to take contact.

“He appears to be better, but we’ll see,” Bickerstaff said before Garland was ruled out on the league’s 4:30 pm injury report.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Caris LeVert gets comfortable in breakout game with Cavs

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