It's amazing what a three-game win streak can do for you. After weeks of agony with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving dealing with injuries and the team slugging through a stretch of ten losses in twelve games, the Cleveland Cavaliers look competent again after three straight wins against the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, and Chicago Bulls. The games on this little run have increased in difficulty with each contest, but the Cavs have finished with more impressive results in each; A close win they should not have gotten against the Lakers, followed by a big win in a close game against the frustrating Clippers, followed by complete decimation of a strong Bulls team. More importantly, LeBron actually looks healthy, the newly traded for Timofey Mozgov and J.R. Smith have made big impacts, and the team is even looking more cohesive from an X's and O's standpoint. Three games is all it took for the narrative to begin to shift.
Tonight the Cavs will look to continue their streak as they welcome the Utah Jazz into the Q. If you'll remember, the Cavs' first game against the Jazz came in the season's second week, and is memorable as being the Kyrie Irving Zero Assist Game. I'm pretty sure the Cavs won though in a late game against a young team with no real go-to scorer though, right?
*Creates Change.org petition to destroy all evidence of the first 41 games of this Cavs season*
Who: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Utah Jazz
When: 7:00PM ET
Where: Quicken Loans Arena - Cleveland, Ohio
Austin Carr Back?: AUSTIN CARR BACK! Three national broadcasts makes even me miss the soothing nonsensical ramblings. Fox Sports Ohio has your coverage.
Music: Outkast - Jazzy Belle
I haven't used nearly enough Outkast in game previews this year and am happy to rectify this.
So.......LeBron's sick. LeBron missed practice yesterday with the cursed "flu-like symptoms," per Dave McMenamin. He's likely going to play tonight. LeBron's played pretty well since his return from injury, averaging 31.8 points, seven rebounds, and 5.3 assists in those four games. The Jazz are also a bad matchup to have LeBron out for, because despite my (joking) assessment that Utah doesn't have a go-to scorer, they certainly do in Gordon Hayward, who's posting 19/5/4 on 45/37/82 shooting. The Cavs could really use LeBron to throw on Hayward, so hopefully he feels better for the game.
UPDATE: LeBron will likely play tonight, so that's cool.
Reports out of shootaround say Cavs' LeBron James WILL play tonight vs Jazz. Missed practice yesterday with flu.— Sam Amico (@SamAmicoFSO) January 21, 2015
Utah's Deep. The Jazz may not be that good this season, but they have a really talented, fun, and deep bench, and that could give the Cavs issues again. Obviously the notable players here are Rudy Gobert, who's posting 3.8 blocks per 36 minutes and is a burgeoning wrecking ball in the paint defensively, and Dante Exum, who looked electric for the first month of the season before hitting a wall. But it goes even further than that. Trevor Booker's been really useful for them, shooting 50.9 percent from the field and adding a three-point game. Joe Ingles was a Luke Walton All-Star for his all-around game that includes not shooting, ever. The freshly promoted D-League sensation that is Elijah Millsap is a killer from three. Steve Novak exists (unconfirmed). The Jazz have some interesting young pieces here that will test the Cavs' remade second unit.
Expect Slow, but Scoring. Both of these teams have similar profiles. They run similar offensive systems relying on isolations out of motion looks, and while the Cavs are obviously much more effective at it because of their talent, Utah's scoring at about a league average rate. This is impressive because this team was a timeshare built from bricks last season. Both teams also play at two of the slowest paces in the league, meaning there's going to be plenty of halfcourt offense here. That should lead to excellent displays of X's and O's from the offense, leading to easy buckets, because these defenses are horrible (Cleveland is 26th, Utah is 28th). While Cleveland's been better lately, it's still not great, and the Jazz could potentially take advantage, especially if LeBron isn't around to check Hayward and Derrick Favors gets Mozgov in foul trouble. Expect a slower game, but we'll still get our fair share of points.
Fear the Sword's Fearless Prediction: Assuming LeBron is playing, the Cavs should win this one. The Jazz are a tough matchup due to their size inside and their depth, but it took the Cavs being totally unfamiliar with themselves, in altitude, and on a back-to-back for Utah to grab a win at home on a game-winner in November. Cavs should roll, something like 105-98.