To complete a five-game Western Conference road trip, the Cleveland Cavaliers just beat the West’s hottest team. A 42-point second quarter led the way for a 117-109 victory over in Denver against a Nuggets squad that was 6-1 in their last seven games.
Entering the road swing, the Cavs were just 2-15 on the road all season. They finished the trip with a 3-2 record, more than doubling their previous total of road wins.
Tristan Thompson had a very efficient offensive night while the Cavs bigs dominated again against the Nuggets. The guards led the way early on. Overall, it was a great performance as the team heads into the holiday weekend.
20 on 9 – Let’s focus on Thompson some more. He had 20 points on the night, just his fourth such performance of the season, and only took nine shots to get there. He was also 4-for-6 from the free-throw line and had 10 boards. This season, Thompson’s biggest issue has been finishing at the rim – he was shooting 50% entering Friday after a 59% mark in his sophomore year. Against the Nuggets frontcourt combination of J.J. Hickson, Timofey Mozgov and Kenneth Faried, he didn’t have any issues at all. Last time out against Denver, he also had 17 points and a career-high 21 rebounds.
35 and 19 – The free-throw attempt counts for Cleveland and Denver, respectively. The Cavs were the far more aggressive team throughout. Big kudos go out to Kyrie Irving and even Jarrett Jack for pushing the tempo right back at Denver. They didn’t settle for (as many) jumpers like normal. All five starters had at least four free throw attempts.
+11.4 and -18.1 – Yet, I don’t think I can emphasize C.J. Miles enough. For some reason, ever since I called out his slump on Dec. 29, he’s arguably been the Cavs’ most impactful player. In the last 12 games since Andrew Bynum’s suspension, the team has a +11.4 Net Rating in 289 minutes with him on the court. With him off the court in 297 minutes, the team’s Net Rating drops all the way down to -18.1. For context, that’s like comparing a 65-win team to a 5-win team. Obviously, this remains a pretty small sample, but Miles again had a +14 plus-minus mark on Friday. His success has been carrying the squad. Let’s just hope he can remain hot, as the former Utah Jazz swingman is known for his streakiness.
0 – Minutes for Luol Deng in the second quarter. That was the quarter in which the Cavs made their big run, as led by the red-hot guards. Mike Brown rode his hot hands and didn’t let the previously minutes-restricted Deng off the bench. Quarter tallies: Irving scored 10, Dion Waiters had 9, Miles had 8 and again, even Jack had 7. But Deng was nowhere to be seen. It’s actually a relief, as he had totaled 78 minutes in the previous two games. He only had 30 total on Friday. That’s much more reasonable and sustainable for his future health, especially after his recent Achilles issues.
22.3% – Anderson Varejao’s assist rate in the five games since Deng arrived on the court. After Wednesday’s difficult Portland loss, I noted Varejao’s very elite rebounding rate since the Bynum suspension – it’s still hovering at 24.0%, best in the NBA during that span. But he’s now averaging 5.4 assists in the last five games. A 22.3% rate is usually only common among guards. He had seven dimes on Friday, the second-most in a game in his career (he had nine on Opening Night 2012 against the Wizards). With Deng on the court and Miles playing so well, the Cavs have really found a rhythm offensively. Varejao’s presence remains pivotal for making everything click in so many different ways.
6-for-21 – Two-point shooting mark for the Nuggets three starting non-big men in Wilson Chandler (23 points), Randy Foye (19 points) and Ty Lawson (18 points). All three had been red-hot (Chandler since his return) during the team’s recent hot streak. Last night, despite going a combined 11-for-27 from three-point range, they struggled inside the arc against the Cavaliers. Perhaps it was a factor of the spacing or the presence of Deng defensively. Whatever it was, the Cavs made just enough consistent defensive stops down the stretch to never let the game get too interesting.
63.9% and 50.4% – Cavs shooting percentage in the restricted area since and before Deng arrived on the court (notice a trend here?). The NBA average is right at 60%. Prior to these last five games, the Cavaliers were well on pace for the NBA’s worst restricted area shooting percentage in 17 years. I wrote at length about the issue in The Diff on Jan. 3. Then, when the Deng news was announced, I noted in a WFNY Stats & Info post that he had a 66% restricted area shooting mark with Chicago. With his presence alone, the Cavs could dramatically improve. They clearly have. They dominated the lighter Denver frontcourt on Friday. This is a very, very encouraging trend. Maybe they’ll actually play like a consistently average offensive team now.
11-13 – The team’s record since Nov. 30. Kudos to Fear The Sword’s David Zavac for pointing that out on Twitter last night. That just means, again, that that 4-12 start to the season was so, so miserable. The Cavs now are in a position to contend in the Eastern Conference. They’re only four games back of the No. 6 seed. So much is at stake as we approach the exact halfway point of the season.
The next game: Monday afternoon at 1 p.m. against the Dallas Mavericks. They’ve been a very different team this season, thanks to the addition of Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon. Dirk Nowitzki still remains a very efficient offensive force. The game marks the start of a five-game homestand – Chicago, Milwaukee, Phoenix and New Orleans follow. Again, another 3-2 mark would go a very long way to the Cavs potentially making that coveted playoff run.
Bonus stat: The Cavaliers are now 1-0 when I meet up with WFNY’s Ben Cox, Alex Raffalli, Martin Rickman and Brian Stein for tacos. Had a great time last night. Hopeful that more can join next time around.
Photo: AP Photo/David Zalubowski