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What to watch for in Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Denver Nuggets

The Cavs welcome the defending champions to Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers (6-6) will look to continue their winning ways against the visiting Denver Nuggets (9-3), starting a tough five-game stretch against playoff and championship-caliber opponents. Denver, the defending champs themselves, should offer a good test of where the Cavaliers are at heading into Thanksgiving.

Who: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Denver Nuggets

Where: Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse - Cleveland, Ohio

When: 6 p.m. EST

TV: Bally Sports Ohio, Altitude,

Spread: DEN -3.0

Expected Cavs Starting Lineup:

Darius Garland, Max Strus, Dean Wade, Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen

Cavs Injury Report: Donovan Mitchell (hamstring, OUT), Ricky Rubio (Personal, OUT), Ty Jerome (ankle, OUT), Isaac Okoro (knee, OUT), Isaiah Mobley (G League, OUT)

Expected Nuggets Starting Lineup:

Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokic

Nuggets Injury Report: Jamal Murray (hamstring, OUT), Vlatko Cancar (knee, OUT)

What to watch for

Slowing down Nikola Jokic

One does not simply stop Nikola Jokic, but the Cavaliers are going to have to give it their best shot. Jokic has been his usual dominant self averaging 29.7 points, 14.1 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game. He’s scored more than 30 points in two straight games, but the Nuggets have had tougher sledding lately with Jamal Murray out for a few weeks. That makes offense a little more difficult to come by, but Jokic is a one-man offense himself. Double-team him in the post? He is more likely than not going to find an open shooter via a window that was cracked for a split second. He sees the game faster than most people and is more than capable of making opposing teams pay.

The Cavs’ defense has not been its usual dominant self out of the gate, 12th in the NBA, but they have been quite good in the paint - in no small part to having two of the best defensive bigs in the league. But Jokic has scored 24 or more points and grabbed 10 or more rebounds in four straight games against the Cavs dating back to 2021. How the Cavs defend Jokic, particularly in not allowing him to dictate everything so heavily, will be key.

Operating without Mitchell

Unsurprisingly, the Cavs are a much better team with Donovan Mitchell on the floor. The offense is 16.6 points per 100 possessions better with Mitchell on the floor than off and incites a _22.8 differential overall, per Cleaning the Glass. The Cavs were able to get by the lowly Detroit Pistons at home on Friday night without Mitchell, but this will be a tougher task against the Nuggets. Lineups without Mitchell have fared poorly, to say the least. Surprisingly, lineups with Darius Garland, Max Strus, Caris LeVert, Mobley and Allen have a differential of -58.6 in 23 possessions per Cleaning the Glass. Swap out LeVert for Dean Wade in that lineup and things improve dramatically. But it's still -18.2 with essentially league-average offense. That is abhorrently bad.

So that means the Cavs will have to flow through Garland to get the offense humming, something that has been largely inconsistent so far this season. Cleveland is 20th in offense this season, and that was with Mitchell on the court. To survive against Denver's top-ten defense without him, the Cavs may have to go back to their “zero hero ball” playbook from 2021-22 to grind out a win. Having more movement shooters like Strus and Georges Niang hit their shots will go a long way, and Wade offering up more than the usual bucket or two plus his defensive intensity would help dramatically. LeVert has been outstanding off the bench so far this season, and he will be relied upon to fill in the offensive hole the most with Mitchell out.

One stat to watch

After making a point of getting more shooters in the offseason to take more threes, the Cavs have reverted back to last year’s trend. They’re 20th in the league in three-point attempts and 25th in three-point make percentage, undoubtedly lower than expectations. However, the Cavs have shot 42.9% or better from deep in two of their last three games. It will be tough to keep that momentum going without Mitchell, but the Cavs are better equipped to deal with his absence as opposed to last year.

Another odd thing found while searching splits data: the Cavs average more points and assists in losses than in wins this season. They've also been worse at home (2-3) this season than on the road (4-3), a complete opposite from last year where they were dominant at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.