Five Keys: Cavaliers at Celtics

Joe Gabriele
Jan 3, 2018 1:22 PM ET

Key: Garden Party

If Cavalier fans were feeling a bit blue following their squad’s 0-3 roadie, the shortest player on the floor gave them a huge lift on Tuesday night. Isaiah Thomas won’t be playing against his old team tonight – but the Celtics know exactly what the Wine & Gold have in the chamber for the second half and beyond. Both teams have come a long way since Cleveland’s 102-99 win in the home opener on October 17, with the Celtics heading the Eastern Conference standings for the balance of the season. Boston lost All-Star forward Gordon Hayward in the opening moments of that contest, but it’s barely slowed Brad Stevens’ defensive-minded club down – and they come into tonight’s contest having won three straight, including a New Year’s Eve victory over Brooklyn. The Cavaliers bounced back from a rough trip with Tuesday night’s win over Portland at The Q – using a 13-0 run early in the fourth to pull away. As the Wine & Gold embark on a five-game, 10-day trip, all eyes in the East will be on Round 2 tonight in Beantown – with the Cavaliers trying to show another young up-and-comer that they’re still the Conference’s big dog.

Key: Trading Places

If the postseason planets align as they seem to be – or maybe, say, when the Cavaliers return to Boston on February 11 – the marquee matchup of Isaiah Thomas and the man he was traded for will finally take place. But for tonight, it’ll be Jose Calderon squaring off against Kyrie Irving – who’s having a sensational first season in Boston. The Wine & Gold’s former four-time All-Star and the man who hit the biggest shot in franchise history is still an offensive machine – topping the 20-point mark 30 times already this season, including 11 30-point games and a 47-point outing against Dallas – but he’s also been more focused on the defensive end. The former No. 1 overall pick doubled-up in his first meeting with the Cavaliers, notching 22 points on 8-for-17 shooting, adding 10 assists, four boards and three steals. And he’s coming off a 28-point performance against the Nets on Sunday night. When these two teams met earlier this season, Derrick Rose was Cleveland’s starter. But while Rose continues to rehab an injured ankle, Jose Calderon will return to the starting lineup at the point. Calderon got a DNP-CD in the opener, but he’s been the squad’s starter since November 20, running up a nice 16-5 mark while Isaiah Thomas got healthy.

Key: Green Lit

It’s no secret after a decade-and-a-half of work: LeBron James has made the Celtics his Eastern Conference raison d'être -- and he seems to love doing them on their home floor as much as he does at The Q, averaging 29.6 points per in 36 contests at the TD Garden, the highest mark by an opponent, including A.I., Kobe and Carmelo. Since his return to Cleveland in 2014, the King has gone 16-4 against the Celtics, regular and postseason, averaging 28.3 points, 7.9 boards and 7.1 assists over that dominant stretch. And it’s well-documented that his 29.6 ppg career scoring average against the C’s is his highest against any NBA team. True to form, James stuffed the stat sheet in the home opener – leading both teams in nearly every category with 29 points, 16 boards, nine assists and a pair of blocks. LeBron won’t have an easy night at the office on the defensive end, however, as he’ll spend much of the night trying to contain explosive rookie, Jayson Tatum. The first-year forward from Duke is already posting numbers that have him in the conversation with all-time Boston heavyweights like Larry Bird, Dave Cowens, Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker – and he comes into tonight’s contest leading all rookies with a .471 mark from beyond the arc.

Key: Middle Men

Neither Al Horford nor Kevin Love is your typical NBA center – not by traditional standards anyway. But both have found a way to make it work, and tonight’s contest will feature two of the Conference’s most skilled big men. Horford might not be an intimidating rim-protector, but he’s still the anchor for the East’s top defense, one that’s allowing only 98.5 points per – second-best mark in the league. Horford didn’t do much in the opener, but he’s doubled-up in two of his last three games coming into tonight’s meeting, including a 21-point, 11-rebound outing in a win last week over Charlotte. This season, Horford leads the Celtics in rebounding, assists and blocks – trying to become the first Celtic since Hall of Famer Dave Covens did so in 1977-78. Kevin Love has been outstanding all season long – and even better of late, canning at least three triples in seven straight contests and tallying at least 20 points in eight straight road games. And including last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, the four-time All-Star has notched a double-double in eight straight games against Boston, averaging 21.6 points and 13.0 boards over that span.

Key: Reserve Judgment

The Cavaliers bench has been strong all season long, and as the squad continues to get healthy, it’ll continue getting stronger. On Tuesday night, Isaiah Thomas (briefly) joined the second unit – netting 17 points in 19 minutes. But Cleveland’s “regular” reserves were almost as good in the win over Portland. Dwyane Wade finished with 15 points, going 6-of-11 from the floor, tying the team-lead with eight boards to go with three assists. Jeff Green reached double-digits without hitting a single field goal – going 0-for-5 from the floor but 10-of-12 from the stripe, adding four rebounds, five helpers and a pair of steals in the win. Tristan Thompson continues looking more like his old self – adding six points and tying a team-best with eight rebounds. And Kyle Korver bounced back from a rough shooting road trip to go 2-of-3 from long-distance. Overall, Cleveland’s bench outscored Portland’s, 61-23, bolstering their season average to 40.5 ppg, good for 5th-best in the league. The Celtics second unit is younger, but almost as formidable. Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris combined for 29 points off the bench in Boston’s recent win over Brooklyn, and Marcus Smart is always a thorn in Cleveland’s side. It’ll be all hands on deck for tonight’s monster showdown in Beantown.

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