KeyBank Five Keys: Cavaliers vs. Nets

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Key: Cutting Down the Nets

Everybody in the basketball universe knows about the Cavaliers huge Finals rematch with the Warriors set for Christmas Day. But before the Wine and Gold get to that eagerly-anticipated contest, they’ll have to take on the struggling Nets in a Friday night tune-up at The Q.

The Cavs are coming off a midweek back-to-back sweep against the Bucks – dropping them on Tuesday night in Milwaukee before knocking them off the following night at The Q, winning their eighth game in their last nine outings in the process.

The Nets, on the other hand, have lost seven of their last eight – including a 16-point loss to the Warriors on Thursday night. Brooklyn goes from the frying pan to the fire on Friday – taking on the World Champs one night after taking on the runners-up.

Cleveland has taken seven of their last nine meetings with the Nets, including six straight at The Q – holding them to under 95 points in each of those six wins and beating them by an average of 14 points in the process.

Key: Bah, Humbug!

Despite the Cavaliers returning to their winning ways on the heels of a three-game mini-funk, the news hasn’t been all good.

Not long after Cleveland lost Chris Andersen for the season after injuring his knee in practice, J.R. Smith – who was already having a strange season – fractured his right thumb on Tuesday night in Milwaukee, had successful surgery and will miss at least the next three months. Swish’s teammates got a pair of wins without him, but with teams like Golden State rolling in and a West Coast trip on the horizon, the Cavaliers will have to piece something together.

Luckily for them, DeAndre Liggins has been a revelation on the defensive end and Iman Shumpert has had a career season offensively. Odds are the Cavs brass will still pull something off, but even without Kevin Love in the lineup, Tyronn Lue’s resilient bunch has won with its next-man-up.

Liggs will likely get the start at the 2 again on Friday and, speaking of revelations, will take on third-year pro Sean Kilpatrick, who’s been much better at home than away from the Barclays Center, but still comes in averaging 15.7 ppg on the season, already having posted seven 20-point games this year after doing so only twice in 2015-16.

Key: December Reign

As the Cavaliers gear up for their collision course against Golden State on Sunday, their best player is playing his basketball – and that’s a pretty big statement.

As the Wine and Gold has heated up over their last nine – (the only game they dropped was the Big Three-free decision in Memphis) – LeBron James has been the tip of the spear, averaging 29.9 points on 55 percent shooting from the floor, including 42 percent (21-of-50) from long-range to go with 7.8 rebounds, 8.3 assists and 1.7 steals per.

James, who’s 9-for-16 from three-point range over his last two outings, shot 62 percent from the floor against the Nets last year, including a March 24 win in which the King drained his first 10 attempts before finishing 13-of-16 from the floor.

Brooklyn counters with Bojan Bogdanovic, the only Net to start all 28 games for them all season. The improving third-year Croat has averaged 20.0 points per over his last three home games and has gone for double-figures in four of his last six meetings against the Cavs.

Key: Big Brooklyn

Though the franchise in general has struggled since relocating to Brooklyn, one consistent bright spot is their prized big man, Brook Lopez.

Now in his ninth season, the former Stanford standout is having another All-Star-type campaign – leading the Nets in scoring and blocks. Lopez led both squads in Brooklyn’s loss to Golden State – finishing with 28 points on 9-for-16 shooting – canning four three-pointers, one more than Steph Curry – in doing so.

Lopez – who’s sixth in the NBA in blocked shots at 1.8 bpg – has scored at least 20 points in six of his last seven games, but he’s not one of the better rebounding bigs in the league, averaging just 5.3 boards per contest. On Friday, he’ll tangle with one of the best.

Tristan Thompson – who’ll need just two more appearances to reach 400 straight – is coming off a 15-rebound night, grabbing nine of those off the offensive glass. Coming into tonight’s game, Tristan ranks 5th in the league in offensive boards per game (3.6) and 14th overall – averaging a career-best 10.3 rpg in 27 starts this year.

Key: Gift-Giving Uncle

Already one of the Association’s top point guards heading into this season, Kyrie Irving has somehow taken his game to another level.

For much of the season – until Number 23’s recent scoring surge – Kyrie led the team in scoring, and he’s been as consistent as any Cavalier this season, notching at least 20 points in 22 of his 25 outings. But the three-time All-Star can roll out of bed and score points; it’s been his assist numbers that have been so impressive of late. On Tuesday night, Kyrie handed out a career-high 13 helpers – (the fourth time in his career he’s dished out at least 10 assists while scoring 30-plus points) -- and is averaging 10.0 over his last three games.

But Irving has struggled against Brooklyn over the last few meetings, averaging just 10.9 points on 33 percent shooting over the last three contests.

He’ll have his hands full on Friday night with Jeremy Lin, who’s been good since returning from a hamstring injury – averaging nearly 14 points on 51 percent shooting in five games back.