Luol Deng joined the Cleveland Cavaliers just in time for a four-game Western Conference road trip, which ends tonight in Denver. The Cavaliers have gone 2-2 so far, a stellar mark for a team that was 12-23 prior.
Deng is clearly finding his stride offensively. In the last two games, a loss to the Portland Trail Blazers and a win over the Los Angeles Lakers, he’s scored 25 points (on 10-of-20 shooting) and 27 points (on 9-of-15 shooting, including 5-for-5 on 3-pointers).
But Deng, so far, is living up to only half of his reputation for being a strong two-way player.
The surprise is that Deng says he’s struggling defensively, which has long been considered his strength.
“I’m making a lot of mistakes,” Deng said. “People who don’t know the system might not notice it, but there’s a couple rotations I’m putting the team in bad situations because I’m not used to it.”
Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee, the Cavaliers’ previous starting small forwards, are solid defenders. So, Deng wasn’t acquired to solve defensive issues – though he also wasn’t expected to hurt Cleveland’s defense, either.
The Cavaliers have allowed 105.5 points per 100 possessions with Deng on the floor, more than the 103.8 they’ve allowed for the season. But as Deng learns the system, that disparity should vanish. Four games is not cause for concern – especially when Deng has helped overall.
Deng is a huge offensive upgrade, more than making up for his temporary defensive deficiencies with his offense. When Deng plays, the Cavaliers score 106.1 points per possession compared to 97.9 for the season.
That will certainly buy Deng minutes to work through his defensive issues.
Timberwolves’ Jarrett Culver on brother scoring 100 points in college game: ‘It felt like I was dreaming’
“I left the gym and my phone just blew up,” Jarrett said. “Everyone is texting me, ‘Your brother, your brother.’ So I FaceTimed him. I was like, ‘No way!’ I didn’t know what to say. I was in shock. It felt like I was dreaming.”
“I feel like I dropped 100 the way I was celebrating with him. I was super-excited for him. He deserves it.”
Obviously, it’s unconventional for a single player to take 62 of his team’s 77 shots. But it doesn’t seem this was designed in advance. Nor does it seem Wayland Baptist runs a wild scheme. J.J. just got hot early, and his teammates then decided to keep feeding him. Obviously, by the end, he was gunning for records.
How will Jarrett one-up his brother now?
Celtics’ Kemba Walker flips over-shoulder pass to Jaylen Brown, who finishes with spinning dunk
The Kings have won three straight – over the Mavericks, Rockets and Thunder. The schedule softens over the next week and a half, giving Sacramento a real chance to rise in the Western Conference standings.
The Toronto Raptors and their fans handled the return of Kawhi Leonard with nothing but class. The video tribute was spot on, and having the court light up to retrace his “shot heard around the World” was brilliant. Having the guys Leonard played with out to greet him at center court was a great touch, having Kyle Lowry present him the ring was perfect, and the crowd responded with an extended standing ovation (a few did boo Paul George, as if Leonard leaving was his fault). Doc Rivers said after the game he’s not seen any team do it better and he’s right.
Leonard then repaid that love by showing what he and his new teammates can do, crushing the Raptors with relative ease.
Lenard had 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting, but credit OG Anunoby for making him work for those buckets. Leonard has struggled at points this season — he shot 2-of-11 against Toronto at Staples Center last month — and part of that was his knee was bothering him. Scouts talked about him not looking as explosive or comfortable, but that has changed of late, he is moving well and getting tho his spots.
Another former Raptor, Lou Williams, added 18 points. The Clippers bench, as it usually does, had their way and outscored the Raptors bench 44-18. It was a good win for the Clippers after getting thrashed themselves by the Bucks last Friday night. They needed a quality road win.
The Raptors are 1-4 in their last five with losses to Miami, Houston, Philadelphia, and now the Clippers in that stretch. Toronto is 3-8 against teams over .500. It’s concerning, and it will force Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office to consider their plan to keep this core together through another playoff push — if a team comes calling with a good offer for Marc Gasol, do the Raptors say yes?
Wednesday was a reminder that without Leonard, there is a ceiling on this Toronto team.
2) Cleveland opts not to trap James Harden, he drops 55 and carries Houston to win. For the past couple of weeks, teams have adopted a new, aggressive strategy against Harden — aggressively double team him at midcourt, force him to give up the ball, and dare any other Rocket to beat them. (Zach Lowe breaks it all down beautifully at ESPN.)
The strategy has had mixed results. When good defensive teams do it (the Clippers, for example, tried it) they’ve had some success, especially if they can force Russell Westbrook to take threes. When bad defensive teams do it (say, Atlanta) Harden still carves them up. The Rockets are 5-5 since teams started trying it, but they have the fourth-best offense in the NBA in that stretch (their defense and mental vacations during games are what has let them down).
Cleveland is not a good defensive team, third-worst in the NBA coming into Wednesday night, so the Cavaliers didn’t try to trap The Beard. They went with a more traditional defense, and Harden carved them up for 55 points.
Houston had a comfortable lead in this game but had one of its in-game mental vacations and let Cleveland score 24 in a row to take an 11 point lead. That’s when Harden took over and scored the Rockets’ next 15 points to get them back into the game.
Harden is carrying the Rockets this season (which is why he’s in the thick of the MVP race, again), but if the team can’t tighten up its game and stop having those in-game lapses there is only so much Harden can do.
3) Grizzlies’ rookie Ja Morant may have thrown down the dunk of the year. When we talked about athletic freaks leading up to the last draft, talk instantly turned to Zion Williamson. With good reason.