DENVER: The Cavs have played in plenty of games like this, particularly on the road. They’ve managed to lose most of them, which is why they’re still 10 games under .500.
But the Luol Deng trade has transformed this team. Sure, it has only been five games, but his impact is evident. The Cavs were 2-15 on the road without him. They’re 3-2 on the road with him following a tough 117-109 victory Friday against the Denver Nuggets.
“He’s a big piece to this team right now,” Anderson Varejao said. “I really think we could make the playoffs. I really believe that.”
With Deng, the Cavs certainly appear to be one of the eight best teams in the East. They’re back to within 1 1/2 games of the final playoff spot, but they’re 4-2 since announcing the trade.
Kyrie Irving had 23 points, Tristan Thompson had 20 points and 10 rebounds and Deng had 18 points Friday, when they held on after the Nuggets chopped a 14-point lead down to three in the final minutes.
With Deng’s guiding hand, the Cavs weren’t as frantic offensively. They didn’t rush possessions and force bad shots. They converted huge second-chance opportunities after both Thompson and Irving grabbed big offensive rebounds in the final 90 seconds.
After Irving came out of a scrum with the loose ball following a Varejao miss, Deng finished with a big dunk and a 113-108 lead with 43 seconds left. Wilson Chandler split a pair of free throws at the other end and the Cavs escaped with a winning road trip. They have now won four of their last six games and beat a Nuggets team that had won five of their last six.
“We’ve got a young team. Guys haven’t been in that situation and had success in that situation a ton,” Mike Brown. “So when you have a veteran like Luol who has been in that situation -- shoot, forget a regular season game, he’s been in that situation in big-time playoff games -- he can help settle us down. He’s good.”
C.J. Miles scored 19 points, Deng had 18 and Varejao grabbed 16 rebounds.
The Nuggets pulled within 105-102 when Nate Robinson made an open 3-pointer, then stole the inbounds pass when Varejao and Irving weren’t paying attention.
Robinson converted with another basket and the Nuggets were closer than they had been since midway through the second quarter, but the Cavs showed some maturity in holding on.
“I thought our poise down the stretch was very good,” Brown said.
The Cavs were red-hot offensively in the first half. They shot 57 percent and carried a 68-57 lead into the half. The 68 points were the most they’ve scored in a half this season and was built on a 42-point second quarter. It was the most points the Cavs scored in any quarter since they had 44 in the fourth quarter against the Phiadelphia 76ers on Nov. 5, 2010.
They extended the lead to 14 in the third quarter before the Nuggets began chipping away using the Cavs’ version of a three-guard lineup with Robinson, Randy Foye and Ty Lawson. Kenneth Faried sat the entire fourth quarter, Nuggets coach Brian Shaw said afterward, because he wasn’t feeling well.
Now the Cavs return home for a five-game homestand with an eye on playoff positioning.
“I think we’ve been growing every day,” 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.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.