INDIANAPOLIS — The Cleveland Cavaliers’ best stretch of the season came in late November when they won two straight games against playoff-caliber teams Houston and Philadelphia after nearly upsetting LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers.
The Cavs have been striving to get to that point ever since.
That’s why head coach Larry Drew plans to put David Nwaba back in the starting lineup — maybe even as soon as Tuesday night against the rugged Pacers.
“When he was in the starting lineup we did establish some type of rhythm with our starters and then the guys coming off the bench, they were in a rhythm as well,” Drew said prior to Tuesday’s shootaround at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “Just really too bad or unfortunate that he went down with an injury and then we had to shuffle things up because what i saw with him in the starting lineup I really liked and what I saw in the combination with Jordan (Clarkson) and Alec (Burks) I really liked.”
Nwaba started three straight games for the Cavs in late November, thrust into the “defensive stopper” role. While stats can certainly be twisted to fit a specific narrative and sample sizes are often too tiny to make declarative statements, it’s clear the Cavs feel Nwaba has made a significant difference when healthy.
“He plays with a physicality, he will rebound the ball,” Drew said. “He will take the challenge of guarding people and he brings a toughness. What he’s done thus far since his return is something we’ve been missing in his absence.”
After missing nine consecutive games, Nwaba returned to the lineup on Wednesday, playing a big role in Cleveland’s 113-106 win against the Knicks.
Since his comeback, he has been on a tight minutes restriction, limited to around 10-12. During Sunday’s loss, the Cavs were able to bump that up to 15 — another promising sign.
That’s the number of minutes Drew would like to see from Nwaba in order to justify putting him in the five-man starting group, as Drew tries to get more out of that quintet after being outscored 90-55 by Philadelphia’s starters in Sunday’s clunker.
“Anywhere from 15-20,” Drew said. “I don’t want to put too much on his plate early. The last thing I want, or anyone wants at this point, is a setback with him. We will gradually increase his minutes, see how he feels and if he feels good then we will just continue to gradually increase his minutes.”
Nwaba, who was sporting the wine-colored starter’s jersey in the locker room, told cleveland.com Tuesday that he’s feeling better and his achy right knee is getting stronger.
But Drew and the training staff want to see how Nwaba feels following shootaround. His ability to get through that without any problems this afternoon will determine whether he’s ready for the starting load.
“Had to take a step back after David was injured and had to kind of mix it up a bit,” Drew said of his rotation. “But I do like what he brings with that starter group. Something that was working there, something that was clicking there.”
Tuesday would be a nice night to have Nwaba’s defensive presence back in the starting lineup. The Cavs will have to deal with Indiana All-Star Victor Oladipo, who is coming off his best performance since returning from a knee injury of his own.
If Nwaba regains his spot in the group, it’s likely Burks will go back to his spark plug role off the bench, allowing Drew to use his intriguing Clarkson-Burks duo more often.
“I really want to get back to the way it was,” Drew said.