Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers at Lakers

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

Key: Hollywood Ending

On Friday night in L.A., the Wine & Gold dropped their first road game since the season-altering trio of trades back on February 9 – falling to the Clippers in a costly loss at STAPLES Center.

The Cavaliers came into that contest – the second game of their season-long six-game trip – already missing Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, and during the course of their 116-102 defeat, also lost Rodney Hood and Cedi Osman. Hood, who suffered a lower back strain, is listed as doubtful for tonight’s affair. Osman, who suffered a left hip flexor, will likely miss the next two weeks of action.

The Lakers have been hot since around mid-January, winning 13 of 16 games before dropping two of their last three – including a nine-point loss on Friday in Denver.

Cleveland has already dropped the Lakers once this season back at The Q and comes to L.A. having sunk the Lakers on four straight occasions at STAPLES. And on Sunday night, the Cavs hope to extend their overall win streak against the Lakers to eight straight – having beaten them by an average of almost 10 points per while scoring at least 120 in five games during the seven-game streak.

And with all things considered as the season’s second-half has unfolded tonight’s contest might have a little extra sauce on it.

Key: Changing of the Guard

There’s no way around it: this has been an odd season for the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs. And it seems like a long time ago that Derrick Rose and Isaiah Thomas were the team’s top two point guards.

Rose recently inked a deal with Minnesota and Thomas, of course, was dealt to the Lakers in exchange for Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson.

Thomas got off to a strong start with his new squad and has had some big nights – including a 29-point outburst against Miami – but he’s cooled off recently, scoring a combined 23 points in his last two outings, failing to get to the stripe in either contest. The East’s reigning scoring champ has never gotten into a rhythm this season after rehabbing from hip surgery and is shooting under 40 percent from the floor with L.A., including 32 percent from long-range.

None of that will matter on Sunday night, with Thomas likely looking to prove a point to his old squad.

George Hill – who had a solid night on Friday, finishing with 10 points and five helpers – will get the start on Sunday against rookie Lonzo Ball, but look for Jose Calderon – who went 15-3 in his first 18 starts as a Cavalier – to get some run on Sunday with the Wine & Gold’s recent bout with the injury bug.

Key: Call of the West

Isaiah Thomas won’t be the only one with something to prove on Sunday night. There’s the other side of that trade, too – and the newest Cavaliers should come into tonight’s affair with a chip on their shoulder against the only NBA team they’d known before early February.

Larry Nance Jr. – taken with the 27th overall pick by Los Angeles out of Wyoming in 2015 – played two full seasons with the LakeShow before being dealt back to Northeast Ohio.

He’s been outstanding through his first 11 games as a Cavalier and comes into tonight’s contest riding a career-best three-game streak of double-doubles, including a 16-point, 12-rebound outing in a tough Friday night battle against DeAndre Jordan. Nance was forced into the starting lineup when Tristan Thompson sprained his right ankle against Denver and all he’s done in those three starts is average 17 points, 13.3 rebounds and 2.3 steals per.

Jordan Clarkson was named to the All-Rookie First Team in his first season with the Lakers, but – like Nance – has found a home with the Wine & Gold, netting double-figures off the bench in nine of his first 11 appearances with Cleveland.

On Friday night, he had his best scoring output as a Cavalier – tallying 21 points against the Clippers, going 6-of-12 from the floor, including 4-of-5 from long-range in the loss. In his 11-game run with Cleveland, the former Missouri standout is averaging 13.3 points, shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor and better than 42 percent from beyond the arc.

Key: King of the Road

Yes, the L.A. crowd will have an ulterior motive when Cleveland’s four-time MVP rolls into STAPLES Center on Sunday night. But Numeral 23 will have only one focus: running the Cavs’ win streak over the Lakers to eight games and getting their current road trip back on track with two teams pushing Cleveland for the 3rd-seed in the East’s Playoff picture.

LeBron followed up his epic performance on Wednesday in Denver with a 25-point, 10-rebound night in Friday night’s loss to the Clips.

In Cleveland’s win over the Lakers back on December 14 at The Q, James notched one of his 13 triple-doubles on the season – finishing with 25 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists, two steals and a pair of blocks in the nine-point victory.

The King leads the league with five triple-doubles since February 7 – averaging 29.5 points, 10.0 boards and 10.5 assists, shooting 55 percent from the floor and 45 percent from deep over that stretch.

With the Cavaliers shorthanded along the frontline, James will tangle at varying points with both Julius Randle and impressive rookie Kyle Kuzma, who’s recently been moved into the starting lineup.

After missing almost his entire first season with the Lakers, Randle has improved in each of his next three seasons in L.A. And Kuzma, one of the biggest steals of last June’s Draft, comes into tonight’s contest having scored double-digits in 12 of his last 13 outings – including a 20-point, 10-rebound effort in a win over Orlando on Thursday night.

Key: Shooting Stars

With the Cavaliers trying to cobble together lineups in light of their recent injury issues, even more of the scoring onus will fall on the shoulders of JR Smith, who bounced back from a pair of rough outings earlier in the week to finish with 15 points in Friday night’s loss to the Clippers.

Swish’s season has been almost a microcosm of the Cavaliers’ – as he continues to find his rhythm with 17 games to play. Swish has notched double-figures in just two of his last seven outings, but he’ll have to turn it up on Sunday night with Cedi Osman and possibly Rodney Hood on the shelf.

Rookie Josh Hart got the start against Cleveland in the Lakers’ loss at The Q back on December 14, but after undergoing surgery on his hand last week is done for the rest of the season.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will get the nod in his place. Pope has had a solid first season in L.A., and has been very good as the Lakers have reversed their fortunes in the second half. He comes into tonight’s matchup having scored double-figures in each of his last nine outings – doubling-up in three of those games with a 34-point outing against Sacramento in the mix.

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