Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers at Suns

Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Key: Into the Valley of the Sun

With 16 games remaining in the regular season and three games remaining on their season-long six-game trip, the Cavaliers know that time is of the essence as teams begin jockeying for playoff position.

After tipping off the trip in style last Wednesday night in Denver, the Wine & Gold went 0-for-L.A. – including Sunday night’s frustrating loss to the Lakers at Staples Center.

In that defeat, the shorthanded Cavs – missing Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Cedi Osman and Rodney Hood – were bullied in the post for the second-straight game, with the Lakers blowing the game open late in the third quarter.

The lottery-bound Suns have won a total of three games since January 12 and bring a five-game losing streak into tonight’s contest. On Saturday night, they trimmed a 22-point Hornets lead to just a deuce in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t hold on for their 20th win of the season.

Tonight’s meeting will be the first this season between these squads – with the rematch set for next Friday at The Q. Cleveland has won the last five meetings, including the last two at Talking Stick Resort Arena, beating the Suns by an average of 11.0 points over that span.

The Cavaliers would love to make it six straight and get the roadie back on the rails with a tough matchup against the red-hot Blazers on the horizon.

Key: Middle Management

In the final game before departing on their current junket, the undersized, undermanned Cavaliers turned the tables on the Pistons – beating them on the boards, in the paint and on second-chance opportunities. But the road trip has brought the squad back to reality and without two of their top three big men, the Cavaliers have struggled in the post throughout the trip.

Both DeAndre Jordan and Julius Randle had their way with the Wine & Gold over the weekend, and they dodged a 36-point, 12-rebound bullet by Nikola Jokic last Wednesday night in the Rockies.

With Love (left hand) and Thompson (right ankle) still on the shelf, Larry Nance Jr. and rookie Ante Zizic might get a little break on Tuesday when they face 17-year vet Tyson Chandler and Alex Len. But Chandler is still averaging 9.2 rpg (15th best in the NBA) and Len is averaging 7.4 boards off the bench, good for second-best in the league.

Nance had his double-double streak snapped at three on Sunday night in Los Angeles, but still notched double-figure scoring in his seventh-straight game – finishing with 16 points and eight boards while going 7-for-12 from the floor in the loss.

Zizic, the only roster player remaining from the Kyrie Irving deal, has improved with each passing game, registering a career-high 15 points on 7-for-9 shooting, adding seven boards in just under 20 minutes of action.

Key: By the Booker

The Suns were without the services of one of the league’s brightest young stars – Devin Booker – in Saturday night’s loss to Charlotte. Sitting that game out was about the only way to cool off the third-year guard from Kentucky – who has scored at least 30 points in six of his previous seven games – tying him with Charlie Scott, Charles Barkley and Amar’e Stoudemire as the only Suns players to post a similar seven-game stretch.

Over that span, Booker – who dropped 70 on the Celtics last year – is averaging 32 ppg, shooting 47 percent from the floor and 43 percent from long-range.

The Cavs held Booker to just 4-for-13 shooting in their last visit to the Valley of the Sun, but he still managed 21 points, going 13-for-14 from the stripe in the loss.

The mercurial JR Smith will draw that defensive assignment on Tuesday night. Swish has been up and down through the first three games of the trip – sandwiching a 15-point, five-assist, three-steal outing on Friday night against the Clippers with a pair of clunkers against the Nuggets and Lakers.

The 14th-year man has struggled to find any consistency following his one-game suspension less than two weeks ago – shooting just 35 percent from beyond the arc over his last five games.

Key: Reign in the Desert

LeBron James has accomplished just about everything there is to accomplish throughout the first 14 years of his Hall of Fame career, but one thing he has never done is play all 82 games. With 16 games to go, he looks poised to close out the campaign as one of the team’s two iron men (along with Kyle Korver).

James began the six-gamer with an epic performance last week in Denver, but slowed down slightly in Tinseltown. But even with those mere mortal performances in Los Angeles – the King is still averaging a triple-double since February 7. Over that 14-game span, the four-time MVP has posted averages of 29.1 points, 10.0 boards and 10.3 assists, shooting 54 percent from the floor and 43 percent from long-range.

In Sunday’s loss to the Lakers, James notched his 39th double-double of the season – good for fifth-best in the Association – netting team-highs in points (24), boards (10) and assists (7).

LeBron will lock horns with rapidly-improving fourth-year man, T.J. Warren, who’s missed his previous two games with back spasms, but was riding a heater before that – averaging 23.7 ppg in his last six outings.

The former NC State standout has already topped the 30-point mark six times this season, including a 40-point outburst in an early-November win over the Wizards.

Key: Bench Trial

The Cavaliers second unit has been a strong suit all season long and even with the team’s recent rash of injuries has continued to play well.

On Sunday night against the Lakers, the bench combined for 54 points – with three reserves notching double-figures for the sixth time in their last dozen games.

Ante Zizic had the best game of his young NBA career. On the other end of the veteran spectrum, both Kyle Korver and Jose Calderon were solid as well. Calderon finished with 14 points, going 4-of-5 from the floor to go with a pair of assists in 21 minutes of work, and Korver went 4-of-5 from long-range, adding four boards and a blocked shot in his 28 minutes of action.

This season, Korver is shooting .433 from beyond the arc – good for fifth-best in the league – and he leads the Cavaliers with 149 triples, second among all NBA reserves.

Jordan Clarkson, who might’ve been pressing a bit against his former squad, failed to net double-figures for just the third time in his 12 appearances with the Wine & Gold.

Jeff Green was pressed into starting duty for the first time this season with Rodney Hood suffering from a lower back strain on Sunday night, but the 10-year vet – who’s tallied double-figures in just one of his last four contests – will likely move back to the bench.

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