Random dribbles following the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 113-108 road win over the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday.
1. Just when you think you’re starting to figure out the Cavs … they go ahead and surprise you again.
2. The Nuggets are an underrated team and just put up 126 points in Cleveland four days earlier. So how could the Cavs be expected to fare in the oh-so-thin air of Denver? I admit, I assumed the answer was “not great.”
3. After the Cavs blew a 16-point first-half cushion, I thought I was probably right. The Nuggets took the lead for the first time with 8:35 left and the Cavs looked utterly exhausted.
4. Then LeBron James saved the day.
5. James scored the Cavs’ final nine points, including a combination of a runner and fadeaway off one leg while falling out of bounds . That sealed it. Anyone who saw the Nuggets’ faces after that shot could tell they were thinking, “Yeah, it just isn’t our night.”
6. There are no words to describe the way James has played since the Cavs remade their team with those early-February trades. He averaged a triple-double for the month. He has seemed re-energized and extra focused. He is keeping his teammates involved while dominating individually.
7. The change has been noticeable to just about everyone in the league. ESPN analyst Doris Burke noted on the air that James “seemed down” shortly before the trade deadline. But since the deals that brought in George Hill, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood, James has appeared much more confident and upbeat, both on and off the court.
8. He finished with 39 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds and tons of winning decisions. As Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said, LeBron could have finished “with 18 or 19 (assists) but we missed some open shots.”
9. Meanwhile, James told ESPN his level of play is “probably at an all-time high.” It would be hard to argue with him after the past four weeks, and performances like the one Wednesday.
10. Why is James playing so well? “Just because of my body and my mind,” he told ESPN. “And the grace of God, giving me this ability.”
11. He later added, “I put so much work into my game, I’m capable of making any kind of difficult shot.” And Cavs and Nuggets fans everywhere gave a hearty amen.
12. LeBron did play a whopping 39 of 48 minutes, and Lue admitted “we had to ride him more than we wanted to.” But the Cavs sought some revenge for the other night, and mostly, to kick off their six-game road trip right.
13. While the Cavs have struggled at home, they are 5-0 on the road since the trades, and 4-0 with the new guys in uniform. That includes the win at Denver, as well as at Boston and at Oklahoma City. Sometimes, you can’t help but wonder if James is just a little more dialed in on the road.
14. The Cavs (38-26) also really needed this because both the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics continue to win. It’s starting to seem unlikely the Cavs will catch either (the Raptors are first in the East), but they want to make sure they can at least hold down the third seed.
15. Lue on the East race: “I don’t really worry about the standings. We just want to get better each game.”
16. Fair enough. We’ve seen what this Cavs team can do when it plays well — and when it does, winning on the road hasn’t been a problem.
17. Nance Jr. gave another fine showing in his second straight start, scoring 13 points and grabbing 13 boards. He is a combined 15-of-25 shooting over the last two games and the Cavs are 2-0.
18. The Cavs did miss Tristan Thompson (ankle) a little, as Nuggets center Nikola Jokic had his way with anyone the Cavs threw at him. Jokic finished with 36 points on a sizzling 12-of-14 from the floor. At the very least, Thompson would have been another active big body.
19. Still, there’s no hiding the fact the Cavs are now 19-3 in games where Thompson doesn’t play. That means they’re a wildly underachieving 19-23 when he does.
20. Translation: Start Nance Jr., even when Thompson returns (supposedly in about two weeks).
21. Hood scored 15 points on 6-of-13 shooting, and Jeff Green added an underrated 10 in 17 minutes off the bench. Like Nance Jr., Hood started for the second straight game.
22. Clarkson scored eight, marking just the second time he failed to reach double figures since joining the Cavs. Still, he played with energy and did a nice job overall in his 20 minutes. J.R. Smith (six points) played 25 and was just sort of running around out there again.
23. Translation: Play Clarkson and Hood more than Smith.
24. I’ve been writing all of the above since the trade deadline, and I doubt it will change anything. But I’m going to keep writing it, anyway.
25. Hill scored seven points and passed for five assists, and while his numbers weren’t great, it’s never really about numbers for him. He typically stays within himself, never forces anything and probably played his best game defensively.
26. Next stop: Los Angeles for two. The Cavs just beat Blake Griffin (and the Detroit Pistons) on Monday, and now they get the Griffin-less Clippers on Friday. After that, it’s old friend Isaiah Thomas and the Lakers on Sunday. Channing Frye, recovering from an appendectomy, may also return to the Lakers’ lineup that night.