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.