INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — The Cleveland Cavaliers will likely have their defensive stopper back for their first-round playoff matchup against the New York Knicks.
Isaac Okoro, who missed the final six games of the regular season with a sore left knee, took part in some contact portions of practice on Thursday and it appears he’ll be ready for Game 1 on Saturday.
Okoro is Cleveland’s best perimeter defender, and his presence will be more needed than ever against a New York team that likes to get players in offensive isolation matchups — especially on the wings.
Coach J.B. Bickerstaff remained vague about Okoro’s availability, saying only “we’ll see” when asked if he was encouraged by his progress the past two days.
However, Bickerstaff was very clear about what the 22-year-old small forward does for the Cavs, who are one of the league’s top defensive teams.
“There’s an energy that he supplies the group when he’s doing Isaac things, and you go back and just watch film and you marvel at the way he can just keep himself in position and is always in the play,” Bickerstaff said. “There’s no screening action. There’s no misdirection that can get him out of position and it’s fun to watch and he’s elite at it.”
Okoro got in some extra shooting practice Thursday as the Cavs had a lighter workout than the previous day in hopes of staying fresh for what they hope is a lengthy postseason run.
Okoro last played on March 26, when he was on the floor for just nine minutes as the Cavs beat Houston to lock up their first playoff spot since 2018. The team has been somewhat secretive about Okoro’s injury.
Okoro missed the March 31 game against the Knicks — New York star Julius Randle was also out with a sprained ankle, and his status for the series remains unknown — and Knicks guard Jalen Brunson erupted for a career-high 48 points.
The Cavs are counting on the 6-foot-5 Okoro to at least slow Brunson.
“It’s one of Isaac’s strengths defending a guy like that,” Bickerstaff said. “Obviously, Brunson is a heck of a player. He’s extremely talented and has proven to be clutch in the brightest moments, but those are the challenges that Isaac accepts and he loves.”
And his teammates love what Okoro does for them defensively.
“It makes it easier, especially in pick and rolls,” said center Jarrett Allen, who also missed the recent loss to the Knicks. “He’s usually guarding the guy that handles the ball the most, so it’s not like the guy is going to blow past him.
“It’s not like he’s going to give the guy an open lane to the basket. So that helps me be able to relax more and rely that it’s going to be a 2-on-2 defense.”