SALT LAKE CITY: Seventeen thoughts tonight following a much-needed 113-102 win over the Utah Jazz to start this important five-game road trip…
1. The Cavs are 2-0 since trading for Luol Deng and he’s only played 21 of a possible 96 minutes. They won each game by double figures with an average margin of victory of 15 points.
2. To put that in perspective, the Cavs only had two double-digit victories in their first 34 games and only one win by 15 points prior to Wednesday’s win over the Sixers. Beyond what he has provided on the court – remember he has played just 21 minutes and is still feeling his way around right now – it’s evident the mere trade for an established veteran has given this team a much-needed lift at a time they really needed one.
3. “It was big time,” Dion Waiters said of the trade. “We knew once we got him we were really going to be able to make some noise. Just having that veteran. A guy who can post, come off screens, a great defender, All-Star… his presence, you definitely feel him out there talking to you.”
4. Deng did all of those things and more in Friday’s win. There is plenty he provides the Cavs they didn’t have before, but what was evident to me early is they finally have a wing who can post up. They haven’t really had that since LeBron James. He can also create his own shot whenever he needs it, another trait that is desperately lacking on this team aside from Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters.
5. The Cavs seemed to be forcing the ball to Deng early in the first quarter, which is probably fairly natural since they wanted to involve him right away. It slowed ball movement, but the Cavs did a great job of moving the ball in the second half. It was a big part of what allowed them to blow the game open in the third quarter.
6. Before leaving on this trip, Irving was talking Thursday about ball movement. “When you pass, the ball will come back to you, magically,” he said.
7. Waiters said the same thing Friday after the game. “We’re moving the ball, passing the ball. Nobody is trying to do it on their own, just playing with each other.”
8. This is important, of course, because Irving and Waiters are the two with the ball in their hands the most. And they’ve both been known to dribble the air out of it. If they truly start buying into moving the ball consistently, and Irving genuinely believes he’ll eventually get it back if he gives it up, this offense can continue to consistently produce.
9. The Cavs didn’t really blow the game open until late in the third quarter once Deng departed for the final time. When Jarrett Jack replaced him with 3:12 left in the third quarter, the Cavs held a 72-68 lead. By the time the quarter was over, the lead was 15.
10. Brown warned before the game the Cavs won’t have such a heavy three-guard look with Deng on board, but it’s clear he’s going to stick with that lineup whenever Deng is off the floor. They did so well on Friday that Deng got the rest of the night off.
11. “If there’s a group out there that’s rolling, I'm going to let 'em roll,” Brown said. “Just like Kyrie. Very seldom do I let him run a whole quarter. He was rolling. … You'll still see the three-guard lineup, you just may not see it as much. Now if they're rolling the way they were tonight, you will see it.”
12. Brown didn’t seem keen on the idea of playing all three guards with Deng and a big, but he didn’t rule it out entirely. He just wants Deng to get a little more comfortable in the Cavs’ system before he tries it. A lineup of Irivng, Waiters, Jack, Deng and Anderson Varejao would be treacherous to guard, but they could give up a lot of points, too.
13. “We’ve talked about it,” Brown said. “If we did that, we’d be trying to really muck it up out there if we feel like we really need to open it up trying to get baskets late in the game if we're down. Hopefully, we don't get to that.”
14. It seems silly to call the 36th game of the season a must-win game, so this wasn’t a must-win game for the Cavs. But it was a really important, really need to get it game, particularly since the Jazz were without leading scorer Gordon Hayward. But as Brown said both before and after the game, the Cavs have entered games with their opponent maligned with injuries in the past (that Bulls game on the road comes to mind) and got pounded so they needed a win here.
15. Some teams in the East are starting to figure some things out. The Nets have won five straight following a double-overtime win against the Heat, the Knicks have won three straight (including a big win Thursday against the Heat) and four of their last five. They are playing .500 in their last 10 games, while the Bulls almost defiantly have won four straight despite the Deng trade. They’ve won their last two games without him and continue to cling to the fifth spot in the East.
16. The point is teams in the East are slowly starting to separate. Teams like Boston and Orlando, as expected, are drifting toward the bottom. The Knicks and Nets are climbing. Which way will the Cavs go? This trip will help define it. They pulled with 1 ½ games of the Bobcats for the eighth seed with Friday’s win.
17. Early flight in the morning for Sacramento. See you there.