Already a leading contender for the NBA’s most improved player award, Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Darius Garland is also generating considerable All-Star buzz.
The third-year pro has averaged 31.5 points and 7.5 assists while shooting 61.1 percent over his last two games for the Cavaliers, who visit the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.
Cleveland saw its four-game winning streak come to an end with Sunday’s 109-108 loss to the Utah Jazz, while Milwaukee has won nine of its last 10.
The Cavaliers have relied heavily on Garland since Collin Sexton suffered a season-ending torn left meniscus on Nov. 7. The 6-foot-1 Garland has responded by showing why he was the fifth overall pick in the 2019 draft.
Garland entered Sunday’s play averaging career highs in points (19.1), assists (7.3), rebounds (2.9) and shooting percentage (46.7 percent).
“It feels like he gets better every single game,” Cavaliers forward Jarrett Allen said. “Whether it’s in passing, whether it’s in scoring or making the right read. He’s just improving in some facet of his game. And it’s fun to watch. Fun to watch as a teammate, fun to watch as a friend. Just him taking that next step.”
The Cavaliers have lost their last seven meetings against Milwaukee, which could be without star Giannis Antetokounmpo for the third straight game.
Antetokounmpo is listed as day-to-day with right calf soreness. The two-time MVP is averaging 27.6 points and 11.8 rebounds with 6.0 assists and 1.7 blocks.
With their star forward sidelined, guard Pat Connaughton made seven 3-pointers and scored 23 points in Saturday’s 124-102 win over the Miami Heat.
The Bucks also received a spark from forward Bobby Portis Jr., who grabbed a career-high-tying 16 rebounds and scored 19 points for his eighth double-double of the season. Portis is averaging 15.3 points and 8.8 rebounds while scoring in double figures in 15 straight games.
Milwaukee forward Khris Middleton has broken out of a lengthy shooting slump by averaging 21.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists over his last three games.
Veteran guard Wesley Matthews made his season debut with the Bucks on Friday after signing a one-year deal. The Marquette product gives coach Mike Budenholzer another 3-point threat off the bench.
“Wesley is a guy who always takes pride in taking the best perimeter player on the other team,” Budenholzer said. “He has incredible attention to detail and is a focused defender. Offensively, he has the ability to spread the court and make shots, make 3s. I think we really need him and he’s going to help us in the short term and the long term, too.”
If Antetokounmpo is forced to miss Monday’s game, the Bucks will need to find an answer for Cleveland’s imposing frontline.
Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff has been starting the 6-foot-11 Allen along with 7-footers Evan Mobley and Lauri Markkanen. The trio combined for 40 points, 27 rebounds and three blocks in Sunday’s loss to Utah.
The Cavaliers had held their last 13 opponents under 40 percent shooting from 3-point range before the Jazz shot 41.7 percent from beyond the arc on Sunday.
Mobley has at least one block in 13 straight games for Cleveland, which has won four of five following a five-game losing streak.
“We’re not satisfied,” Bickerstaff said. “We know that we have a long way to go. The NBA season is a long season, and you can find pockets of success, you can find pockets of failure, but it’s how consistent you are over the 82.”