BY EDDIE DILWORTH
CAVS BEAT WRITER
(CLEVELAND, OH) - The Cleveland Cavaliers have started the new year on a positive note.
After a 98-82 victory against the New Jersey Nets (1-4) Sunday evening, which evened Cleveland's record to 2-2, the Cavaliers' 2012 prospects could be brighter than once previously perceived.
Finishing with the second-worst record (19-63) in the NBA a season ago, not much was expected from the 2011-12 Cavaliers, who merely added two rookies and a second-year player to its roster. Nevertheless, the Cavs have surprised so far this season as the team looks markedly improved in year two of head coach Byron Scott's system.
"It's the second year with a philosophy under Coach Scott," Cavs guard Daniel Gibson said after scoring 19 points against the Nets. "It's the second year knowing what we're supposed to do out there on the floor, so it makes it a lot easier. We're able to go out there and actually play instead of thinking so much."
If the Cavs players were over-thinking last season, they seem to be moving closer to brain dead this season. So far in this young season, the Cavs are scoring more per game, rebounding at a higher clip and averaging nearly the same amount of assists with a rookie point guard compared to last year's squad.
The foremost reason for Cleveland's improved play has to be the addition of their two rookies. Kyrie Irving has stepped in and accepted the challenge of leading the veterans in the starting lineup, while Tristan Thompson has provided the second unit with Varejao-like energy. After a less than pleasing opener against the Toronto Raptors, Irving has taken his game up another level and shown flashes of potential stardom.
Sunday night against the Nets, Irving scored 13 points and added four rebounds and four assists in the midst of producing several electric plays. Thompson finished with nine points on 4-of-5 shooting including six rebounds. The energy he brought to the game was unmistakable.
"We all know that he's known for the defensive end, a guy that can guard people, block shots, rebound the ball," Scott said. "Offensively, when he gets a chance, he's pretty good around the basket."
Irving furthered Scott's sentiments.
"When Tristan came in, he brought a new energy, started running the floor and blocked a few shots," Irving said. "It feels good to have another rookie contributing off the bench."
Thompson's is certainly contributing, shooting a lofty 58.8 percent from the field thus far. Add to that a relentless motor and a hunger for blocking shots, and Thompson is a player the city of Cleveland could quickly fall in love with.
The Cavs were in love with the 3-ball Sunday. After connecting on 16-of-26 three-point field goal attempts against the Nets, one could think a win would have easily been in Cleveland's grasp. A 16-point victory, though, was far from consideration when the Cavs trailed 49-43 at halftime.
In the first half, Cleveland was less than effective on defense, a staple that had significantly contributed to the Cavs early success this season. However, holding New Jersey to an 18-point third quarter and 15-point fourth period enabled Cleveland to pull away down the stretch.
After each team traded the lead through much of the contest, Cleveland led New Jersey, 78-76, with a little more than eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter. Thompson immediately converted a layup and when Alonzo Gee drained a three-pointer with 6:35 remaining, the Cavs led 83-76. From that point forward, the Cavs finished the contest on a 15-3 run.
"That's what we talked about at halftime," Scott said of his team's defensive effort in the second half. "We just had to do a better job defensively. We had to be more aggressive, start to get after them."
Antawn Jamison led all scorers with 23 points and chipped in five rebounds. Gee continued his surprisingly solid play with 11 points, three rebounds and three assists.
Deron Williams led New Jersey with 16 points, five assists and four rebounds. Nets guard Anthony Morrow added 15 points.
If Cleveland had not dropped the season opener against an average Toronto team, or had Irving's layup at the buzzer in Indiana fallen through the net, Cleveland's record could stand at an unblemished 4-0. A 2-2 record, however, is the reality a young and quickly improving Cavs team must embrace.
Cleveland looks to earn their first record above .500 in more than a year, Tuesday against the Charlotte Bobcats.