Overview: In their first game without Shaquille O’Neal in the starting lineup, the Cavs struggled to put the Deron Williams-less Jazz away, barely holding on down the stretch of a game the Cavs led for the first 46 minutes of play.
-JJ Hickson. Good god. JJ’s just been a beast in the starting lineup, plain and simple. In my profile of JJ, I made a case that he could evolve into a monster playing the weak-side next to LeBron, and he’s started to look like that player over the last three games. (A note on that profile-in retrospect, I did kinda call one of JJ’s biggest weaknesses, his tendency to gather himself before he goes up, a strength. Clearly hadn’t seen enough of him, although he does get off the floor extremely quickly when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands.)
He’s been working that weak-side beautifully. His cuts when LeBron’s in the mid-post are deadly, and he’s got more upside than Andy as a weak-side player because of how much ground he can cover once he makes the catch. He’s comfortable taking those one or two big dribbles to get to the hole, and he can take off for the finish from much further out than Andy. Offensively, the main difference between at this point them is finishing ability. Andy’s great at using his body and the rim to keep the ball safe when he goes up for a layup, while JJ’s bugaboo is finishing in traffic-he gets off-balance when he tries to finish with finesse and often gets blocked when he tries to go over people. JJ’s springs could make him a great finisher if that light bulb ever goes off, and if it does the LBJ-Hickson PnR is just going to be scary.
For the third straight game, JJ led all players in +/- with a plus-12 mark in a team-high 38 minutes. JJ appears for real, at least offensively, and he’ll only gets better as his finishing around the basket and mid-range shot improve. And that touch pass to Z after JJ caught it on a roll to the basket? I may have been drooling.
Mo was the aggressor offensively a lot tonight, and his efficiency wasn’t spectacular because of that, but he did have a nice night, with 21 points on 19 “attempts” and 6 assists against 3 turnovers. He was more than acceptable, but not quite fantastic, which is how I’d describe the Cavs’ performance tonight.
LeBron was about as passive as you’ll see him get tonight. He didn’t attempt a shot in the pain or a free throw in the entire first half, and spent a lot of the game playing distributor. He actually passed even better than his 9 assists would suggest, spent a lot of time feeling out what Hickson could do on screen-roll situations, and did a nice job controlling the flow of the game, even if it would have been nice for him to go for the kill a little earlier. LeBron’s shot was off for the second night in a row on Saturday-he made his first three jumpers and missed his next eight, and I fear his hot shooting start might be normalizing a little bit. But that three-point play was clutch, and LeBron did a nice job making sure the Cavs took the win home without ever really firing on all cylinders himself.
Big Z’s struggle continues-three buckets at the rim on two tip-ins and an easy layup off a Hickson feed, but only 1-5 on jump shots, and he needs to make those at a better clip.
Great game for Anthony Parker, hitting 4 of his 6 threes, including an extremely clutch three on a fast-break to end a scoring drought down the stretch. Jamario shot well too, hitting three of four threes in only 16 minutes-those threes don’t look like good ideas, but they do go in, especially when he’s catching and shooting.
Defense was the big worry. Utah was doing a lot of damage on mid-range shots, which is something you’ll generally live with, but 103 points is too many to give up to a Jazz team without Deron Williams. I worry Hickson being in the lineup is hurting the Cavs here (can’t blame it on Shaq tonight), but whatever the case is, the Cavs have to remember how important defense is to them.
Mini-rant: after LeBron’s three-point play, the Cavs had to hit free-throws to seal the game. And that’s when 88% free throw shooter Mo Williams got pulled. I get putting in Moon when the Cavs needed a necessary defensive stop, but how do you not call time-out and put Mo in when you get the ball? The first time LeBron got fouled was excusable because it happened right after a rebound, but when you’re up two and have the ball after a Jazz make, how can you POSSIBLY not put Mo in there? LeBron split the pair and gave the Jazz another shot at a three to tie it, and it just wasn’t necessary. LeBron’s never had an ego about taking technicals or late-game free throws, so I’m putting this one on MB. The Cavs had timeouts-they only used 2 in the second half. This was just jaw-droppingly dumb, and I’m just glad the Cavs got away with it this time.
Bullets of Randomness:
The Utah broadcasters on League Pass were absolutely tremendous. As even-keeled as they come, even when they were disagreeing on calls, always making it about the players and not about them, providing good insight, and saying color guy-ey things like “no matter how fast a defensive player is, a moving ball will always be faster.” Jerry Sloan-like broadcasters, I must say-as competent and professional as you’ll find.
The kids are alright in Utah. I’ve liked Maynor ever since I saw him take down Duke in the tournament, and he’s absolutely fearless with his scoring game. He’ll be perfect coming off the bench when Deron comes back. And Wes Matthews can shoot-he contributed all of Utah’s three-point makes and none of their misses.
Two great Kirilenko-related moments late. First was Maynor dressing down AK after he blew the game with an outstandingly stupid three-point attempt, even though he’s the rookie and Kirilenko is the one who should know better. Tremendous. And immediately after that, he gave the foul on LeBron and the Cavs PA guy said his name like he was auditioning for Uncle Vanya. AK-47 just brings me enjoyment.
Alright, everyone. Have a fun weekend.