When I met Russia’s unassuming 7-foot center Timofey Mozgov in London during the 2012 Olympics, I did not predict him someday soon being crucial to the outcome of the NBA Finals.
Yet here he is, the anchor of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ suddenly elite defense, their rim protector extraordinaire and occasional offensive relief valve, helping them to an unforeseen 2-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors.
Mozgov has been quite simply the most impactful defender at his position in these playoffs. He is holding opponents to just 39.0% shooting at the rim for the postseason, the stingiest number of any big man who made it past the first round.
Remember how Indiana’s Roy Hibbert made the defensive rule of verticality famous by mastering the art of jumping straight up to challenge opposing penetrators, arms pointing to the sky so as to avoid fouling? He was the bane of LeBron’s life and helped the Pacers take a series lead over the Heat in two of the last three postseasons.
Now LeBron has a Hibbert of his own, and he is a crucial member of James’ depleted but accidentally perfect cast of role players because he, like Matthew Dellavedova, provides a critical defensive ingredient that Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving never could.
This is straight out of the Hibbert school of verticality:
Poor Draymond Green, struggling with his jump shot and searching for answers, has been unable to get anything going in the paint with Mozgov on the floor:
As Draymond goes, so do the Warriors. His 26.7% shooting through three games is killing them.
A deep dive into the NBA.com stats shows that Mozgov is holding incoming Warriors to 35.7% shooting within six feet of the basket – a full 28.0% below their collective average. With him on the floor, the Warriors are averaging 102 points per 100 possessions, 10 points lower than their regular season output.
His impact is not just coming on defense. At 7’1” and 250 pounds, he is a mountain of a man and in each game of this series has had success posting up right under the hoop to draw a foul or convert a layup, despite some occasionally questionable footwork:
These plays are hugely valuable to the Cavs. They allow LeBron possessions where he need not exert himself, thus conserving precious energy. This is not where Mozgov’s bread is buttered though. It is his ability to move, catch and finish in one motion – a rare ability at his mammoth size – that is proving even more crucial.
Irving (prior to his injury) and Dellavedova have both found him rolling to the hoop for emphatic one-hand finishes:
He is proving especially adept at chilling away from the hoop and then diving to the rim to receive a pass the second he senses an opening:
He has even flashed a soft touch on open jump shots, re-paying LeBron’s faith in him in drive-and-dish situations:
It is this combination of skills that have seen him shoot 54.2% and seize the role of second-leading scorer on the Cavs for the series at 13.0 points per game.
In a tight-as-they-come Finals in which the cumulative score is currently Golden State 292, Cleveland 291, the Cavs have outscored the Warriors by 14 points with Mozgov on the floor. He and Dellavedova share the lead in plus/minus for the series.
Who would have thought this possible when Mozgov was busy putting up 1-for-4 nights on a 13-20 Denver Nuggets team that ranked 26th in the league defensively? Frankly, no one. The Cavs’ decision to trade two first round picks for the big man was viewed by many as over-paying. Now the deal looks like a bargain, especially with Mozgov under contract for another year after this at $5 million per season – a third of Hibbert’s annual salary.
It is not a stretch to state that Mozgov saved Cleveland’s season. Prior to the trade, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reports that LeBron was in full pout mode, deciding to sit out a game at the last minute for no apparent reason and sulking his way through the winter – until Mozgov walked through the door and lifted his mood.
Cavs GM David Griffin confirms the story: “Timo walked in and everybody stood straight up. “(LeBron’s) like, ‘That’s a big motherfucker.’ Timo has had a big impact, I think, on our swagger and our belief that we can win.”
At 18-18, they had lost six of seven games going into Mozgov’s debut, were leaking points at the rim and could not guard anyone. They went 35-11 the rest of the way – a .760 pace that would be good for best record in the league in the majority of regular seasons – and are 14-3 in the playoffs. Other than post-Miami vacation LeBron, he has been the one constant to their success.
Mozgov, like many role players, clearly thrives on being in a winning environment, but make no mistake: he has been central to the winning.
And no one can begrudge him this moment. He is a gentle giant, a good-humoured gent, that rare NBA star who does not take himself too seriously.
This is a man who recorded a TV commercial for a Cleveland-area bar in which he slaps a plate of food off a table and exclaims “Get this weak stuff out of here!” whilst wearing his own jersey backwards:
This is a man who initiated a bro-hug with me in London as if we knew each other, a man as jovial and genuine as professional athletes come.
Fittingly, his Instagram account is one of the better follows in the league. Along with pictures of himself wearing a saucepan on his head, he also posted this gem of a selfie complete with the caption, “Let’s do haircut!”
Will he be posting a picture with the Larry O’Brien trophy next?