Caris LeVert is the Cavs’ ‘X factor’ off the bench in playoffs

CLEVELAND — The Cavs have been in desperate need of some offensive firepower off the bench. And after their “wake-up call” Game 1 loss in which any offense outside of Donovan Mitchell couldn’t be found, the proverbial Bat signal was on full brightness.

Enter Caris LeVert, the Cavs’ “X factor” off the bench who played about as big of a role as anyone on the roster in Cleveland evening the best-of-7 series with the New York Knicks with a 107-90 shellacking in Game 2 Tuesday night.

In Game 1, LeVert was essentially a ghost. He had three points on 1-for-7 shooting from the floor. The Cavs’ lack of any real bench production was on full display. LeVert never got anything going and had a -14 plus/minus in only 18 minutes.

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Then he exploded offensively in Game 2. LeVert scored 24 points off the bench on 9-for-16 shooting, grabbed four rebounds and dished out three assists. He was the Cavs’ second-leading scorer and out-scored any individual player on the Knicks’ roster. He had a +23 plus/minus and, perhaps most notably, was the only player in the game to reach 40 minutes played.

From non-factor to X factor in one game. And he’s a massive reason why the Cavs are heading to New York with the series tied as opposed to being in a dire situation down 0-2 and facing two road games.

“It is great to see Vert just out there just doing his thing. He’s an X factor for us,” said Darius Garland, who scored a game-high 32 points in Game 2. “A lot of people don’t think that he can just come off the bench [and] put up some big numbers like that, but he can on any given night and he’s going to defend his butt off on the other end of the floor.”

In their Game 1 loss, the Cavs couldn’t get much of anything going offensively outside of Mitchell’s 38 points. In Game 2, Garland’s 32 and Mitchell’s contributions as a facilitator (17 points, 13 assists) were complemented by LeVert’s scoring production.

Mitchell and Garland will always be the two top dogs on the offensive end. But LeVert suddenly being such a threat with the ball in his hands forced the Knicks defense to pick their poison. That is when the Cavs are arguably the most dangerous.

“There’s just so many people you got to guard, you know what I mean?” said Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff. “You got Darius and Donovan in space, so now teams have tough decisions to make on who they’re going to help off of. And Caris has the ability to play-make, he has the ability to find open guys, but then you know what he’s capable of as a scorer as well. So it just puts people in a tough spot.”

Cavaliers guard Caris LeVert shoots over Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein (55) and forward Julius Randle (30) in the second quarter of Game 1 of a first-round playoff series, April 15, 2023, in Cleveland.

Cavs guard Caris LeVert forces Knicks guard Jalen Brunson to be a two-way player

LeVert also attacked the same player who gave the Cavs nightmares in Game 1, Knicks guard Jalen Brunson. The Cavs had no answer for Brunson that night. And in Game 2, Brunson had no answer for LeVert.

“It takes a lot to be a two-way player like that, to come out and guard, but then also go up there and shoot efficiently from the field and give us what he gave us,” Mitchell said. “So we don’t take that lightly.”

Bickerstaff has noted on multiple occasions that the bench rotation could shift depending on what the Cavs need on a given night. It is often LeVert taking on different roles to help facilitate that. And every now and then, his scoring ability can take over with the team’s second unit.

“Caris has always been that guy for us to just do whatever we needed him to do,” Bickerstaff said. “And tonight is another example of that.”

Considering the Cavs’ bench production has been a major point of discussion as a possible weakness for Cleveland in the playoffs, LeVert’s firepower, even if it doesn’t show up every game, is a crucial variable that helped even the series. It’s an added bonus to force Brunson to exert some extra energy on the defensive end rather than, again, torching the Cavs’ defense all night.

“I mean, you’ve got to make great offensive players participate on both ends of the floor, and it just wears ’em down,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s hard in this league to carry a load offensively and then have to participate defensively. It’s extremely difficult to do.”

There’s a popular saying across sports: “The best offense is a great defense.” In this case, it’s reversed. An effective way for the Cavs to slow down Brunson’s offense is to force him to guard either Mitchell, Garland or, as the key to all this, LeVert as the third option. In that way, the best defense for the Cavs against Brunson might be a great offense.

The Cavs needed to find somebody on the bench to produce. And in Game 2, with LeVert, X (factor) marked the spot.

Ryan Lewis can be reached at rle[email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cleveland Cavs guard Caris LeVert is an ‘X factor’ against Knicks