Key: The Day After
The squad that celebrated their way off the floor on Wednesday night will look a great deal different than the one that takes the floor on Friday night in Atlanta – and again on Sunday afternoon in Boston.
On Thursday afternoon, the Wine & Gold had one of the wildest trade deadlines in recent memory – turning over much of the roster and adding a much-needed infusion of youth that left the squad with just four players remaining from the 2016 NBA Championship team.
Gone are Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert. The incoming Cavaliers are Larry Nance, Jr., Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and George Hill – although none of those players will be available on Friday night.
The Wine & Gold – coming off a thrilling 140-138 overtime win on Wednesday night – close out the season’s first half with three games on the road.
The Hawks – aiming directly for the Lottery – have actually won two of their last three, before dropping a heartbreaker on Thursday night in Orlando.
The shorthanded Cavs won’t be themselves (yet) on Friday, but they’d love to make it two straight heading into a pair of heavyweight bouts to wrap up the roadie.
In terms of a players looking like themselves again, LeBron James finally looked like the version that led the MVP conversation earlier this season – posting monster numbers and drilling the game-winner at the buzzer in overtime.
It was his fifth career game-winning buzzer-beater and 20th game-winning bucket in the final 20 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime. James scored all seven points as the Cavs closed out the victory on a 7-2 run.
In that contest, the 14-time All-Star finished with 37 points – his first 30-point game since an MLK Day loss to the Warriors – going 16-for-22 from the floor, including 5-of-7 from long-distance, to go with 10 boards, a team-high 15 assists and the game’s biggest blocked shot – a swat of Jimmy Butler’s game-winning attempt in the closing seconds of OT.
James earned his ninth triple-double of the season and 64th of his career on Wednesday – simultaneously passing Zydrunas Ilguaskas to become the Cavaliers’ all-time leading rebounder.
The King is now just one of three players in league history – joining Michael Jordan (Bulls) and Kevin Garnett (T-Wolves) to be the all-time franchise leader in points, rebounds and assists.
Key: Point of Contention
The Hawks are a shadow of the squad that won 60 games and met the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals back in 2016, but they still have one star from that team still in Atlanta – point guard Dennis Schroeder.
The Hawks’ scoring and assist leader, Schroder has continued to improve – with he and fellow Draft classmate, Giannis Antetokounmpo, as the only two players since the merger to increase their points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game for three consecutive seasons following their rookie year. (No player has ever done so in four straight.)
The German import didn’t have his best game in the last matchup with Cleveland at The Q, but in his first two meetings of the season, Schroeder went off for 28 and 27 points respectively, shooting a combined 63 percent from the floor, 43 percent from long-range to go with 7.0 assists.
In light of the Cavaliers’ roster turnover at the deadline, it’s likely that 13-year vet Jose Calderon gets the start on Friday night. Calderon hasn’t played significant minutes is almost a month, but he was very good in the early-season stretch as a starter – running out to a 16-6 mark before Isaiah Thomas’ return in early January.
Key: Swishin' and Dishin'
While the Wine & Gold was mired in their ugly pre-Deadline funk, it almost went unnoticed that J.R. Smith is beginning to shake out of a personal slump of his own.
After scoring single-digits in seven straight games – taking the collar in two of them – Swish has been very good of late: averaging 13.1 points on 46 percent shooting from beyond the arc. If you took two clunkers against Detroit and Miami out of the mix, those numbers bump up to 16.4 and .52 percent.
In Cleveland’s thrilling victory over the T-Wolves on Wednesday night, Smith went off for 20 points – going 6-for-11 from long-range and 7-for-14 from the floor overall. In that recent seven-game run, the former Sixth Man winner has canned at least three triples in five of them.
Swish won’t have an easy time getting loose on Friday, going against one of the better defensive swingmen in the league in Kent Bazemore.
The fifth-year man from Old Dominion is currently one of just players in the league (along with Victor Oladipo) to net at least 90 steals and 30 blocked shots. And the Hawks as a team rank second in the NBA in causing turnovers.
If Swish wants to stay hot on Friday in Atlanta, Bazemore and the Hawks are going to make him earn it.
Key: Bolstered Bench
The Cavaliers bench has been excellent all season – and the odds are it’ll get even better with the arrival of the new blood acquired at the Deadline.
Jordan Clarkson is second among NBA reserves at 14.4 ppg and Rodney Hood has averaged 16.5 points in 27 games off the bench for Utah – already posting games of 30 and 31 points as a reserve. The versatile and cerebral Larry Nance Jr. is having his best season as a pro and George Hill has seen about everything in his 10 years as a pro.
Of course, that quartet will have to wait just a little bit longer. On Friday night, however, the Cavs will have two of their top three reserves still ready for action.
Kyle Korver was outstanding in Wednesday’s win over Minnesota – going 5-for-7 from the floor, including 4-of-6 from long-distance, finishing with 14 points. Jeff Green, who fired the pass that led to LeBron’s game-winner, was just as effective – tallying 13 points on 4-for-6 shooting, adding six boards and a pair of assists. And Cedi Osman earned himself a rotation spot with a solid two-way effort in the win.
The shorthanded squad will also give Ty Lue an opportunity to look at a couple of his two-way guys in John Hollins and London Perrantes.
Friday night could be an interesting outing in Atlanta. But things are about to get really interesting when the road trip rolls on afterward.