NBA preview: Cleveland Cavaliers look to continue improved play, host Utah Jazz

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers have looked like a pretty good team of late. Can they keep it up?

The Cavaliers recently had a six game win streak that piqued the interest of much of the league. Was the team's recent success for real? Was it a function of an easy schedule? Were they doing anything differently? Could they keep up their winning ways?

All of these questions are fair, and interesting, and worth examining. But it overlooked something. The Cavaliers winning in and of itself was news. This was a team, after all, that hadn't won four games in a row in four years, let alone six. And this is a team that until pretty recently hadn't even shown much interest in the concept of winning, both as an organization (tank!) and on a player level.

The Cavaliers had decent stretches of play under Byron Scott. The Cavaliers had stretches of play under Byron Scott when the schedule was weak. They never put together a stretch of six consecutive wins. Now, the Cavs followed the streak up with three straight losses. Injuries have hurt. The effort hasn't gone away, though, and the Cavaliers are coming off an encouraging win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Maybe the recent play is a mirage. The schedule gets hard, soon, and the team is still missing key guys. Anderson Varejao, C.J. Miles, and Dion Waiters remain out tonight. But there are some reasons to be happy with Mike Brown's team.

Who: Cleveland Cavaliers (23-26) vs. Utah Jazz (21-36)

When: 7:30 pm ET

Where: Quicken Loans Arena -- Cleveland, Ohio

Where can I watch: Fox Sports Ohio, NBA League Pass

Music:

The Cavaliers aren't playing a juggernaut tonight, and have had a day off to lick whatever wounds they might have incurred against the Thunder Wednesday night, but they remain hurt. The burden on Kyrie Irving will remain heavy. Jarrett Jack and to a lesser extent Matthew Dellavedova gave the Cavs valuable minutes in Oklahoma City. Can that happen again? It probably needs to.

Kyrie Irving seems to be in a good place. He has had a couple rough shooting nights since the All-Star break, but I don't think it has affected his intensity level defensively or his ability to keep his teammates involved. If he makes a couple more shots against Toronto the team probably wins, but there are going to be games when he just isn't right shooting. In a game that Miles and Waiters were absent from, there wasn't anyone that could really pick up the slack in the backcourt. He had his whole game working against the Thunder. He looks like he is having fun with basketball again. This is a good thing.

Spencer Hawes has been pretty excellent so far. His defense has been better than advertised, he keeps the ball moving and can even put the ball on the floor a little. He made some really nice plays in crunchtime in OKC. You can see how much Irving likes playing off of him. And, as I have mentioned before, he complements Tristan Thompson really well. Thompson is obviously not the most skilled guy, and isn't always able to make the quick pass, especially when he commits to an offensive move. Thompson's good first step is neutralized when his man a) doesn't have to worry about shot, and b) knows he a teammate close by that can help because he knows Tristan won't find the other Cavs big. With Hawes on the perimeter, though, the help is further away for Tristan's man. Less charges, because Tristan's man can't gamble with help coming over the top, and less blocked shots because the help is getting there later.

In his last 33 games, Tristan Thompson has a true shooting percentage of 53.4%. This represents a significant increase over last season, and his field goal attempts are coming further from the basket this year. For the year he is roughly at the same place he was last season, though his time on the court with Bynum and Mike Brown's reluctance to implement an offense likely plays into that. It's been an alright year as Thompson transitions to life as a right handed shooter.

The Jazz are probably better than you think. Are they awful? Yes. If they were in the Eastern Conference? It might be a playoff team. Their schedule would be easier, and this is a team that has won two games in a row and is 17-17 in their last 34 games. That's pretty solid. Gordon Hayward has rebounded after a pretty tough start to his year. Derrick Favors is slowly but surely turning into a pretty darn good basketball player and remains 22 years old. Alec Burks even looks like a good young scorer who has improved throughout his first couple years in the league. It will be interesting to see how the Jazz handle Hayward, who is a restricted free agent, and Burks, who is eligible for an extension, this summer. They can play together but are both natural shooting guards.

So don't sleep on this team, especially with the Cavaliers missing a few key players. This is an interesting test. Will the Cavs stay focused? The Thompson-Favors matchup intrigues me. Thompson fighting to a draw would be good for Cleveland.

Fear the Sword's fearless prediction: Cavs win, but it goes down to the wire. 91-89.

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