Game number four of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 7-game road trip continues Tuesday night in Salt Lake City as the Cavaliers (4-4) take on the Utah Jazz (5-3).
Utah coach Tyrone Corbin brings a starting lineup of Devin Harris, Raja Bell, Gordon Hayward, Paul Millsap, and Al Jefferson. Key bench players include Derrick Favors, Josh Howard, Earl Watson, CJ Miles, and Enes Kanter. The Cavaliers’ starting lineup is expected to be Kyrie Irving, Anthony Parker, Omri Casspi, Antawn Jamison, and Anderson Varejao. Semih Erden can probably expect to see more minutes off the bench, with Samardo Samuels continuing to struggle. Other key reserves continue to be Alonzo Gee, Daniel Gibson, Tristan Thompson, and Ramon Sessions.
Utah is off to a good start, record-wise, this season in what just might be the toughest division in the NBA. Furthermore, playing in Salt Lake City is never an easy task as the Jazz are notorious for being tough to beat at home.
The Cavaliers are proving to be a team capable of hanging in there with almost anyone when they are playing their best basketball. Until they learn how to be consistent and keep the pressure up for four quarters, though, winning games like this one on the road will continue to be a tall order.
As for the Jazz, though, it is uncanny how similar these two teams are. The Cavaliers have had the slightly better offense, but these teams both have near identical defenses, both are mediocre rebounding teams, both are good at scoring in the paint, both struggle at stopping opponents from scoring in the paint, and both have top-5 benches in terms of Efficiency Differential.
There are a couple interesting areas to watch for in this game. Utah is 8th in the NBA in fastbreak scoring and the Cavaliers are 1st in the NBA in defending the fastbreak. In a game between two closely matched teams (at least in the statistical margins), whoever holds more true to this stat will gain a key upper hand. Also, with both teams having success scoring in the paint and struggling to defend the pain, if either team can gain the edge in paint scoring they will be in nice position to control the game.
The Cavaliers have had mixed success in getting to the free throw line. The Jazz give up the 3rd most FTA per FGA in the NBA, so they will foul you and they will put you on the line. But you have to be aggressive. Both Irving and Sessions must attack the Jazz from the point and either go up strong in the lane to draw fouls or give it up when help comes to allow the bigs to draw the fouls. But if the Cavaliers are content to chuck up 3s all night again, they will be playing away from Utah’s weaknesses, thus setting themselves up for a long night. The Cavaliers must get to the line and they must make their FTs tonight.
In a similar manner, the Jazz will also try to get to the line. Utah is not great shooting team (in fact, they are a pretty awful outside shooting team) and rely on scoring from their post game. As a result, they will draw a lot of fouls on defensive players who fall asleep, are out of position, or are lazy. Varejao is capable of holding his own in the paint defensively, but keep on the likes of Jamison, Thomspon, Erden, and even Casspi and Gee. How they defend the paint and show the discipline to avoid fouling will play a role in this matchup.
The Jazz surely believe they are the better team in this matchup, and maybe (probably?) they are. But the Jazz have a record that masks some of their deficiencies. The same might be said of the Cavaliers, too, but the Cavaliers’ issues stem from inconsistency and a weak schedule. Utah’s problems stem from a basketball team that shoots poorly, doesn’t rebound well despite decent size, and plays suspect defense. Winning on the road in Utah is not easy, and I’d be pretty surprised if Cleveland wins this game, but I expect Utah to have their hands full with Cleveland tonight. Another second-half blowout like Sunday in Portland would be a pretty big letdown against a team the Cavaliers actually match up with fairly well.