Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers vs. Bulls

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

Key: Running with the Bulls

Tonight’s matchup at The Q will feature one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference and another squad just looking to get back in the win column. But on Thursday night, the roles will be reversed – with the scorching Bulls looking to win their eighth straight game and the Wine & Gold looking to bounce back from a tough loss on Tuesday night in Milwaukee.

In that loss – just the Cavaliers’ second in their last 20 tries – Cleveland mounted a furious fourth-quarter rally, erasing a 20-point deficit before watching Milwaukee answer with a late 13-6 run to snap a five-game win streak against the Bucks.

The Bulls – who’ve won seven straight and still have only 10 wins on the year – haven’t lost a game since Nikola Mirotic rejoined the lineup, including Wednesday night’s 112-94 victory over Orlando at the United Center.

The Cavs have already dropped Chicago twice this year – after falling in four straight last season – winning a tight one in late October at The Q and beating the Bulls by 22 earlier this month in the Windy City.

Key: Nikola!

Who would’ve thought Nikola Mirotic would make such a major difference, but since returning from a facial injury suffered earlier this season when he was clocked in practice by Bobby Portis, the fourth-year forward has gone undefeated while having his best offensive season in Chicago.

Mirotic has come off the bench in four of his seven appearances this year, including his last two. Having topped the 20-point mark in four games so far, the former No. 23 overall pick leads Chicago with a 19.6 ppg average heading into tonight’s contest – shooting 52 percent from the floor and 49 percent from beyond the arc.

The reason Mirotic is back off the bench is to make room for the Bulls impressive rookie, Lauri Markkenen – who returned to the lineup two games ago after missing the previous three with back issues. Markkanen has been rock-solid in his first season out of Arizona, averaging 14.3 points and 7.9 boards per contest.

He’s posted double-figures in each of the two meetings against Cleveland this season – going 7-for-12 from the floor, including 5-of-8 from long-range in the first matchup this year.

Key: Bench Boss

Dwyane Wade’s return to his hometown last season didn’t work out as well has his good friend’s did here in Cleveland. But both Wade and LeBron James – who’s now compared their relationship to both peanut butter and jelly and, more recently, to Joe Montana and Steve Young – are happy (and winning) together with the Wine & Gold.

Wade returned to the lineup on Tuesday night after missing two of the previous four with a cranky left knee – and he was outstanding in the gym where he played his college ball, finishing with 14 points in 26 minutes, going 5-of-10 from the floor and 4-for-6 (both season-highs) from beyond the arc, adding four boards, two assists and a pair of steals.

But Wade wasn’t the only reserve to shine against Milwaukee – as Cleveland’s collective second unit topped the 40-point mark for the 21st time this season.

Jeff Green was very good again – finishing with 13 points on 3-for-5 shooting, going 7-fo-9 from the line to go with four boards.

And maybe the most welcome sight of the night was the effort by Tristan Thompson, who looked like himself for maybe the first time this year at the Bradley Center – tallying nine points on 3-of-4 shooting, adding five boards, two helpers and a steal in 18 high-energy minutes off the bench.

Key: Follow the Leader

Against the Bucks on Tuesday night, LeBron James had his streak of triple-doubles snapped at three, so he scored a game-high 39 points – his second-highest scoring mark on the season, despite playing just the final 3:38 of the fourth quarter – instead.

On the night, the East’s reigning Player of the Week, went 14-for-22 from the floor, including 6-of-11 from long-range and 5-of-5 from the stripe, adding seven assists, three steals and a pair of blocks.

On Thursday night, LeBron becomes the first player in franchise history to suit up for 800 games as a Cavalier, and he’ll look to continue his mastery of the Bulls this season after averaging 28.5 points on 63 percent shooting, including 60 percent from beyond the arc to go with 9.5 assists, 4.5 boards and 2.5 steals through the first two contests.

The four-time MVP is among the league’s top 25 in almost every statistical category this season – including scoring, 28.2 points (3rd in NBA), triple-doubles, 6 (2nd), double-doubles, 22 (3rd), field goal percentage, .572 (7th), boards, 8.3 (22nd), assists, 9.3 (2nd), steals, 1.44 (23rd) and 1.13 blocks (1.13, tied-24th).

Key: Love Broker

While LeBron currently sits third among the NBA’s double-double leaders, Kevin Love isn’t fare behind – ranked No. 5 with 20 so far this season, including Tuesday night’s contest against the Bucks. (James and Love’s 42 double-doubles are the most among any duo this year.)

In Tuesday’s thriller in Milwaukee, the four-time All-Star finished with 21 points, going 8-for-15 from the floor, including 5-of-11 from long-distance, to go with a team-high 10 boards, four assists and a steal.

In two matchups against the Bulls this season, Love’s gone for 20-10 in each – averaging 22.0 points and 12.5 rebounds.

Love will square off with Chicago’s Robin Lopez, who’s having his best offensive season this year with the Bulls, averaging 13.1 points through the first 30 contests. Lopez has notched double-figures in each of the first two meetings with Cleveland this year, going a combined 10-of-15 from the floor in the dual losses.

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