DENVER: Fifteen thoughts after a pretty impressive 117-109 win over the Denver Nuggets and a successful swing through the West...
1. How big was this victory, and more accurately this entire trip? So big it brought Dion Waiters out of Twitter hibernation for the first time in three months. Players were sincerely excited leaving the locker room. I couldn't help but think about what Luol Deng said a few days ago. When guys start winning, they start believing in the message. Well they've won four of their last six. Still plenty of work to do, but it's a start.
2. The biggest moment of this trip, at least for my money, was the third quarter against the Lakers. The Cavs were humiliated in their previous game against Sacramento, then they gave up 40 in the second quarter to a lousy and wounded Lakers team. They went limping into the half trailing 63-57 and things looked pretty bleak.
3. Then Deng hit three consecutive 3-pointers to start the third quarter, the Cavs got a couple stops defensively and they had the lead within three minutes. It's a bit melodramatic to say that quarter and game saved the season, but this thing was looking awfully ugly awfully quickly. That victory, in a game they didn't play so well, helped stop the spiral.
4. "The sky was falling in everybody's opinion," Brown said about the mood after the loss to the Kings. "Even people close to the group."
5. That was a telling quote, perhaps one of the most revealing of the season.
6. The East is starting to separate a little bit. The teams that were supposed to be lousy are falling and teams like the Cavs, Knicks and Nets seem to be figuring some things out. Boston, Philadelphia, Orlando and Milwaukee are now where they're supposed to be. The Bobcats are fading, too, while the Bulls continue to stubbornly hold on even after losing Deng.
7. Still, if you want my guess, the Bulls and Bobcats will fall out and the Cavs, Knicks and Pistons will be left fighting for two spots. I think Deng makes the Cavs one of the eight best teams in the East, but they still have to play that way.
8. As I've written elsewhere tonight, this is the type of game the Cavs lost many times this season. Build an early lead, then give it all back and lose at the buzzer. But they were more composed in the fourth quarter Friday, they didn't force many shots early in the clock, they grabbed some critical offensive rebounds late (Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson each had one) and they escaped with the win.
9. I was talking to Deng after the game about his role here and told him this locker room really needed to hear his voice. He didn't disagree. In Chicago, he said, all those guys sort of grew up together within the NBA. They knew what was expected. They knew they couldn't let the other guys down. This team hasn't figured that out yet, but Deng can help get them there.
10. He said he's excited about this opportunity and he sounded sincere. The trade initially shook him, but he's getting the opportunity to grow as a leader, something that wasn't really asked of him in Chicago. At first I was skeptical if he would want to be here and if he'd want to be here long term, but the more I'm around him and the more I listen to him, I believe he's genuinely enjoying this. I've seen him pull guys aside in the court, in the locker room... I've seen him encouraging Matthew Dellavedova, Thompson, Dion Waiters...
11. All of these guys like challenges. That competitive spirit is what got them to the NBA. Deng appears to be embracing this as a challenge and he's making an enormous difference. "He brings a lot of poise to our team down the stretch," Brown said.
12. The Nuggets had won five of their last six. Their defense was ranked sixth in the league. Then the Cavs dropped 42 on them in the second quarter and 68 in the first half.
13. Brown went back to what he has said a few times now, but he's absolutely right. The Cavs were terrible in November, they were a little more competitive in December and now they're winning some of those tight games in January. This team has progressed with each passing month.
14. "I think we're even taking another step now," Brown said. "I said at the beginning of the year, it's a process. Only the guys in that locker room understand that. As long as the guys in that locker room stay in the circle, there's a lot of noise out there that we've got to ignore going forward."
15. It was a long but successful trip. I'm taking off Monday's matinee (Ryan Lewis will be covering) and I'll catch you Wednesday for Deng's first game against his old Bulls teammates. See you then.