LeBron James(notes) took charge offensively in the low post in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ last game, finding a new way to help them win. The Cavs, though, are at their best when James gets his teammates involved as well.
Deron Williams(notes) and the Utah Jazz are no strangers to effective ball movement, but James’ ability to create for his teammates may be the key to Cleveland earning a fifth straight victory over the Jazz on Thursday night in Salt Lake City.
Utah (21-17) topped the NBA in assists in 2008-09 and is averaging a league-best 25.8 this season, led by Williams with 9.7 per game.
Cleveland posted the league’s top record last season despite averaging only 20.3 assists, but after some lethargic stretches earlier this season, coach Mike Brown’s club is increasing its ball movement.
The Cavaliers (30-10) have averaged 23.2 assists in going 10-2 since Dec. 21 - they are 18-0 when getting 22 or more - and have won their last 12 in which James had at least eight himself.
James reached that total in each of his last two games, but that didn’t stop him from finding his own shots. The reigning MVP had 41 points in a 106-94 victory at Portland on Sunday, then added 37 points to his 11 assists in a 117-114 win over Golden State on Monday.
Much of James’ scoring came on back-downs in the paint when the Warriors switched to a smaller lineup.
“It’s a point in my game I worked on a lot this offseason and it’s something I know I can go to throughout the game,” said James, who shot 53.3 percent over his last nine games. “Tonight was a perfect time for it.”
Another benefit of James’ drive-and-kick distribution is the space it creates for Cleveland’s perimeter shooters. The Cavs are the top 3-point shooting team in the East at 41.3 percent.
Utah, by contrast, does most of its work inside, as it is among the NBA’s top three teams in points in the paint at 46.3 per game. The Jazz outscored their past two opponents 108-58 inside.
That domination is due in part to excellent ball movement, and Utah’s efficiency was on display in those two wins. The Jazz had 28 assists and five turnovers in a 111-93 win at Dallas on Saturday, and 28 and nine in a 118-89 blowout of Miami on Monday.
“It’s fun to play like that,” Williams said. “Hopefully we can realize if we play like that we’re going to have a high success rate.”
While the Cavaliers haven’t lost when they’ve hit 22 assists, the Jazz have not won with fewer than 23, going 0-8.
Utah had 20 assists and 18 turnovers Nov. 14 in a 107-103 loss at Cleveland - its fourth straight in the series - but didn’t have Williams, who was away from the team for personal reasons.
Deron Williams wasn’t the only key player missing from that game that will be available Thursday. Kyle Korver(notes) was out for Utah, while Shaquille O’Neal(notes) and Delonte West(notes) were sidelined for the Cavaliers.
James averaged 32.8 points, 10.0 boards and 9.4 assists in Cleveland’s past five games against the Jazz.