Five Keys: Cavaliers at Lakers

March 10, 2016
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Key: Grand Finale

The Wine and Gold got their four-game roadie off to a strong start on Wednesday night in Sacramento – a place that hasn’t been kind to them over the years. That sets Cleveland up for a nationally-televised matchup with the Lakers on Thursday night – that national television audience holding its collective breath as to whether a pair of future Hall of Famers will be in the lineup for the potentially-historic head-to-head.

If so, the game pits Kobe Bryant against LeBron James and the Cavaliers for the final time in the Black Mamba’s career. In 33 games against the Cavaliers, Kobe’s averaged 23.2 points per, including a 17-point night in his final appearance at The Q on February 10.

Aside from the personal matchup, the Cavs would like to continue building momentum after Wednesday night’s win in which they scored 66 points in the second half and pulled away down the stretch.

The Lakers have won two straight coming into tonight’s matchup, including Sunday afternoon’s shocking 112-95 upset of the Warriors, holding Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to a combined 1-for-18 from beyond the arc.

With two days off in L.A. after the back-to-back, the Cavaliers would love to K.O. the 14-51 Lakers in businesslike fashion on Thursday night.

Key: Set for Springfield

Coach Lue has vowed to go with gut in terms of resting players during the season’s home stretch. With 19 games to go, the Cavaliers having a somewhat comfortable lead in the East and the squad playing seven games in 11 nights, Lue might give some guys a break during the four-game trip. Two Sundays ago, he gave LeBron James the afternoon off in Washington and Kevin Love got a breather when the Wizards came to Cleveland five nights later.

But the basketball world wants to see LeBron James battle Kobe Bryant for the final time, and we might have to wait until close to tip to know if they will.

LeBron is 18-7 all-time against the Lakers, averaging 27.8 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.0 assists in those contests. In his second incarnation as a Cavalier, LeBron has gone 3-0 against L.A., upping his average to 29.0 points per. One of those wins came last January at the STAPLES Center when LeBron notched 36 points in a season-altering victory. In his last two outings against the Lakers, James has doubled-up in each – 22 points and 10 boards last February; 29 points and 11 assists this February.

Byrant has had some monster games against the Cavs – (including last year’s matchup in L.A. when he dished a career-high 17 assists) – but has barely suited up in the series over the past few years, playing in just two of the previous five meetings.

Key: Young Guns

Right now, the Lakers as a franchise are in a diametrically-opposed path as the Cavaliers, building from the ground up with youth as they prepare to say goodbye to an all-time great while the Wine and Gold is built to win now around their all-time great.

On Monday night, the Lakers plan started looking like it’s coming to fruition, with D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle all topping the 20-point mark for the first time this season – and Larry Nance, Jr. grabbing 10 boards off the bench.

The jewel of that group is former Buckeye, D’Angleo Russell, the No. 2 overall pick in this past June’s Draft. Since returning to the starting lineup nine games ago, Russell is averaging 20.7 points per, shooting 48 percent from the floor and 48 percent from deep during that span. After a rocky start to the season under Byron Scott, Russell currently ranks 2nd among all rookies in steals, 3rd in assists and 4th in scoring.

The young combo guard will likely see plenty of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert -- with a dash of Delly -- tonight.

Key: Back to Cali

In last year’s meeting with the Lakers in L.A., Kevin Love – who starred at UCLA before being taking No. 5 overall in 2008 – made the play of the game on the defensive end of the floor, taking a fourth-quarter charge against Jeremy Lin that turned the tide in a game that turned the tide of the season.

In Wednesday night’s win over Sacramento, Love made history – becoming the first player in NBA history to have hit 700 three-pointers while averaging 10.0 rebounds per game. And his 700th career triple was a big one, leading to a four-point play with 1:32 remaining to give Cleveland a seven-point edge.

The three-time All-Star has doubled-up in each of the Cavaliers’ last two contests, but continues to struggle from the floor – shooting just 30 percent overall and 18 percent from three-point range over the past seven games.

He’ll match up tonight with impressive Lakers sophomore, Julius Randle, who leads all second-year players in total rebounds (648) and double-doubles (28). As Love tries to shake free from his shooting funk, he’ll have his hands full with the 21-year-old lefty.

Key: Blue-Collar Man

With Timofey Mozgov under the weather, Tristan Thompson was on his own against DeMarcus Cousins on Wednesday night in Sacramento.

And as he’s done against some of the league’s best big men, including Cousins the first time around this year, Thompson made him work for every ounce of production. Overall, Tristan held his own against Cousins while netting 18 points and a game-high 15 rebounds – seven off the offensive glass in the victory.

In Cleveland’s previous meeting with the Lakers back on February 10, Tristan led all rebounders with 13, seven on the offensive end, to go with 15 points on a perfect 6-for-6 from the floor.

With no word on Timo’s illness, Thompson – who will play in his NBA-leading 352nd straight game, second all-time in Cavaliers history – will likely start off against seventh-year big man, Roy HIbbert, who’s had a disappointing first season with the Lakers.