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How the Cavaliers have unlocked their potential with Luol Deng

By Matt Moore | NBA writer

Tristan Thompson scored 20 points vs. the Nuggets Friday. (USATSI)
Tristan Thompson scored 20 points vs. the Nuggets Friday. (USATSI)

Friday night, the Cavaliers improved to 3-2 after the addition of Luol Deng. Outside of an embarrassing 40-point loss to the Kings, the Cavaliers have looked the most like a playoff team they have all season. Mike Brown's move to add C.J. Miles to the starting unit earlier this season, when combined with the addition of Deng, has had terrific results.

The Cavaliers' biggest problem this season has been offense. They average 98.4 points per 100 possessions on the season, the sixth-worst mark in the league. But the lineup of Kyrie Irving, Miles, Deng, Tristan Thompson, and Anderson Varejao is averaging 118.2 points per 100 possessions, an incredible mark.

A lot of that has to do with the fact that for the first time, the team has spacing. Deng demands so much attention off-ball and is good in working in that capacity that it opens the floor. Add in C.J. Miles' ability to stretch the floor (41.2 percent from three-point range this season) and you have a combination that for the first time, actually makes use of the Cavs' strengths.

(Note: An added benefit has been Dion Waiters' move to the bench where he's able to dominate the ball and act as a creator without making the flow awkward with ball-dominant Kyrie Irving. Waiters is playing some of his best basketball in that role.)

I asked Miles what's working so well about that starting group.

"We compliment each other well," Miles said after a win over the Nuggets in Denver Friday. "The things that we do well, we help each other. My ability to space the floor for Kyrie, be more of a threat as a cutter and in the post. It helps him to be able to make the read and then find his shot. Coach has been running different kinds of sets, too. It gets everyone going, and it forces them to have to pick their poison.

"(Varejao's) a heck of a passer. Tristan's eating the glass, he's working in the post, getting better offensively. We're finding a balance, trying to keep everybody eating. The lineup helps because there are more shots to find."

One of those sets that Mike Brown has started using involves a commonly-used tactic which the Pacers are killing teams with this season, using Tristan Thompson. Instead of just posting the big man like the Cavs had to do with Andrew Bynum on account of his girth, the Cavaliers have started having Thompson post coming out of the pick-and-roll. Here, Thompson doesn't get the bucket, but he draws a foul on Wilson Chandler when a smaller defender is forced to rotate to him.

"Yeah, we're using that set more," Miles said. "He's doing a great job sealing his man too, getting position. He's strong as anyone down there. He gets himself in the post, we'll look for him. And then if the shot goes up out of the pick and roll, he can attack the glass and rebound."

The action punishes teams for hedging or doubling Kyrie Irving coming off the pick. A switch results in Kyrie with a slower defender on him. Thompson says the big key with that move is the matchup it creates for him.

"It's the matchup. A lot of teams, if you set a good screen, they have to send a smaller defender to help, so we throw the ball in the post. Coach stresses us to be playmakers, so either kick it out or score the bucket."

Thanks in part to that spacing the addition of Deng provides as well as the new wrinkles Brown has put into his sets, Thompson scored 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting while adding 10 rebounds in a 117-109 win over the Nuggets.

It hasn't been long since the addition of Deng, and there's a long way to go for the Cavaliers to make the playoffs. But for the first time this season, their lineups and the way they're playing make sense. If they can keep building off this, there's a good chance the Cavaliers actually cash in on the hope and excitement of the preseason for them.

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