Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers at Jazz

David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele
Cavs.com Managing Editor

Key: Wrapping Up the Roadie

After dropping the first two games of their trip – falling on Christmas Day in Oakland and against on Wednesday night in Sacramento – the Wine & Gold look to right the ship in the finale on Saturday night in Salt Lake City.

The Cavs came into the three-game roadie as the hottest team in the East, but they’ve cooled off on the trip and would love to right the ship against the Jazz to wrap it up.

Cleveland’s already topped the Jazz once this season – dropping them, 109-100 on December 16 at The Q in Tyronn Lue’s 100th victory as head coach. On Wednesday night in Sacramento, 40-year-old Vince Carter went for 24 points off the bench as the Cavs dropped two straight for the first time since a four-game skein in late October.

After winning six straight in late November, the Jazz have dropped 10 of their last 12, including a 25-point loss to the Warriors on Wednesday night.

The Cavaliers haven’t won here in Salt Lake City since LeBron James’ return, but they have managed to go 7-3 in their last 10 meetings with the Jazz. They’d love to give LeBron a nice 33rd birthday present and snap that skid on Saturday night.

Key: Like a Fine Wine

Oh yeah, it’s LeBron’s birthday!

We know the King is getting older. The question now is: Is he getting better?

James hasn’t put up monster numbers through the first two games of the trip. But that statement in itself is a testament to the King’s greatness. Even while not at his best, LeBron still notched his seventh triple-double of the season in Wednesday’s loss in Sacramento – finishing with 16 points, 14 assists and 10 boards.

Numeral 23 has played six previous games on his birthday (2003, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2013), averaging 33.5 points on 56 percent shooting, including 47 percent from beyond the arc to go with 7.5 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 1.2 steals. His teams haven’t always done well in Utah, but LeBron’s had some big nights against the Jazz – averaging 29.4 points (.518 FG%), 8.4 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.9 steals in 28 career contests. James’ 29.4 scoring average is his 2nd-highest scoring average against any NBA team (Celtics, natch, are tops at 29.6).

In Cleveland’s mid-December win over Utah, James notched his 60th career triple-double – tallying 29 points on 9-of-15 shooting, adding 11 boards and 10 assists to pass Larry Bird for 6th on the NBA’s all-time list.

Key: Middle Management

The Jazz haven’t been the same team since losing Rudy Gobert, who’s missed the last seven games after suffering a right knee injury just before Utah faced the Cavaliers in mid-December. Since losing the NBA’s reigning shot-blocking leader and All-Defensive First Team center, the Jazz have dropped six of seven.

They’ve gone with Derrick Favors in the middle with the absence of Gobert, and the eighth-year forward from Georgia Tech has done an admirable job – posting five double-doubles already this season after finishing with just five all of last year – but he’s nowhere near the defensive presence that Gobert is.

Favors will square off against Kevin Love, who’s been outstanding all season long and even better of late – netting at least 20 points and canning at least three three-pointers in his last five straight – averaging 25.4 points on an even 50 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

In the 14 games since November 28, Love is shooting 48 percent from long-range, averaging 23.7 points and 10.4 boards, continuing to make his case for All-Star appearance No. 5 this February.

Key: Rising Rookie

Wednesday night in Sacramento wasn’t one of the Wine & Gold’s better showings this season, but J.R. Smith’s performance was a welcome sight.

After going the previous seven outings without reaching double-figures, Swish got off to a strong start against the Kings and kept it up all night – finishing with 15 points and six boards, going 5-of-7 from long-range, his third game this season (33rd as a Cavalier, 95th time in his career) of connecting on at least five triples.

Smith – who’s hit 494 of his 1,838 bombs with Cleveland – comes into tonight’s contest needing just three treys to catch Dirk Nowitzki for the NBA’s 11th spot in all-time three-pointers made.

The 14-year veteran will be squaring off with a rookie on Saturday night, but it’s no ordinary rookie. Donovan Mitchell is already looking like one of the steals of the 2017 Draft – leading all rookies with 14 games of 20-plus points and 73 three-pointers made. Mitchell has led the Jazz in scoring in 14 games so far this season, including Utah’s recent matchup with the Cavs – finishing with 26 points on 11-for-14 shooting.

The explosive shooting guard from Louisville has already posted games of 41 and 31 points this season and shows no signs of slowing down.

Key: Bench Mob

Until the Cavaliers embarked on their recent three-game junket, the second unit was one of the squad’s calling cards – and despite a pair of contests where they’ve struggled to find their mojo, still rank 6th in the NBA, averaging 39.8 ppg as a unit.

Against Golden State, the reserves combined for just 21 points before bouncing back with a 35-point collective against the Kings – their 29th game this season reaching the 30-point mark.

The second unit was excellent in Cleveland’s December 16 win over the Jazz at The Q, combining for 46 points in the win.

Kyle Korver comes into tonight’s matchup leading all reserves in plus/minus at +208 and has connected on an NBA-best 41 triples in the fourth quarter this season. Dwyane Wade has notched double-figures in 18 games this season, including three contests topping the 20-point plateau. Jeff Green has topped double-figures in 17 games, but he’s struggled since the Cavs have headed west – averaging 5.5 points on 33 percent shooting through the first two games of the trip.

Though it all, the Cavaliers have tried to work Tristan Thompson back into the rotation after missing 19 games earlier this season with a calf injury. Thompson still hasn’t looked like himself this season, however, failing to reach double-figure scoring or rebounds in any of his 15 appearances thus far.