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Three Keys: Cavaliers at Thunder

Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Key: Rolling Thunder

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The Cavaliers finally close out a ridiculous road stretch in which they’ve played seven of their last eight games away from Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse – traveling to Oklahoma City on Thursday before returning for a weekend back-to-back.

The Wine & Gold snapped their five-game skein on Monday night in San Antonio behind a monster effort from Darius Garland and a pair of big performances off the bench – jumping ahead of the Spurs in the second quarter and finishing them off after intermission to take their second straight at the AT&T Center. Cleveland now plays three of its next four at home.

The Thunder haven’t lost five straight since 2014-15, but that run is in peril on Thursday night, with OKC dropping its fourth straight on Wednesday night against Charlotte – dropping an 11-point decision after falling by an average of 36 points in the previous three. The young Thunder were led in last night’s loss by their two 19-year-old international rookies – Theo Maledon and Aleksej Pokusevski – who finished with 25 points apiece.

The Cavs have dropped seven of the last eight in the series, including a 16-point loss in late February in Cleveland. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led both teams with 31 points and nine assists in that one, however, and he’ll be sidelined with a foot injury for Thursday’s rematch in OKC.

Key: Dynamic Duo

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The absence of Gilgeous-Alexander deprives fans of what promised to be another excellent matchup between two of the most dynamic guards from the 2018 Draft – the Kentucky standout, who went 11th overall, and former SEC foe, Collin Sexton, who went three spots earlier.

Sexton led Cleveland with 27 points in the February 21 meeting against OKC, going 11-for-22 from the floor, adding five boards and three assists in the loss.

The Young Bull got his first career start against the Thunder as a rookie, was solid in that contest and has been ever since – topping the 20-point mark in four of five meetings, averaging 23.2 points per. Unfortunately, Sexton is still seeking his first win over the Thunder.

As good as Sexton was on Monday night in San Antonio – finishing with 22 points and five assists – he took a backseat to his backcourt mate in the lopsided win.

Darius Garland came out in a mood on Monday, scoring Cleveland’s first nine points and keeping his foot on the throttle until J.B. Bickerstaff pulled the stellar sophomore with five minutes to play and his club up 32.

In notching his career-high 37 points, the 21-year-old went 14-for-22 from the floor, including 5-of-10 from deep and 4-of-4 from the stripe, leading both teams with seven assists to go with a pair of steals and a block.

Garland’s 21-point performance in the February 21 meeting with OKC was his second 20-point showing in three career games against the Thunder. He also led Cleveland with eight assists in that contest.

Key: Youth Movement

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The Thunder are quite obviously in the early stages of a youth movement and, even in a loss, can take some positives from Wednesday’s game against the Hornets.

In that contest, the Thunder got a combined 50 points from a pair of teenage picks from this past Draft – the 17th overall pick, Aleksej Pokusevski, and the 34th overall selection, Theo Maledon.

Pokusevski, the seven-foot Serbian with small forward skills, was one of the most intriguing players in his class. And after bouncing back and forth in the G-League, has seemed to have figured it out of late – topping the 20-point mark in four of his last five starts, averaging 18.6 points, shooting 46 from the floor and 46 percent from long-range over that stretch.

Maledon has also benefitted from the extended playing time.

The lithe 19-year-old from France finished with 14 points in OKC’s win over Cleveland in late February and has had some big games since, including a 33-point explosion against Phoenix last week, going 10-of-18 from the floor, including 5-of-7 from long-range in the loss.

Cleveland’s 19-year-old Isaac Okoro hasn’t put up those kinds of offensive numbers, but he has been rock-solid over the past three games.

Over that span, the rugged rookie from Auburn has notched double-figures twice – including a career-high 17 points last Saturday in Miami – going 13-for-17 from the floor overall, including a perfect 5-for-5 from beyond the arc.

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