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Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers vs. Celtics

Kevin Love + Tristan Thompson + LeBron James + JR Smith
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Beat Writer

Key: Come and Take It

The Cavs and Celtics have had a cold war rivalry going since the 70s. It’s not as high-profile as Boston’s inter-Conference beef with the Lakers, but there’s enough history between them to guarantee more bad blood for the foreseeable future.

That, of course, includes some recent history – a blockbuster deal that sent four-time All-Star Kyrie Irving to Beantown in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and a very valuable draft pick. Kyrie hasn’t been shy about his feelings for his old team and city and how the sellout crowd reacts to his return will be must-see TV.

Boston finished with the best record in the East last year and continued their arms race against Cleveland by inking free agent forward Gordon Hayward, dealing Avery Bradley to Motown for Marcus Morris and drafting Duke’s Jayson Tatum with the third overall pick this past June.

The Cavaliers, who’ve gone 13-3 in their last 16 meetings with Boston, upgraded their roster as well. Aside from the Irving-to-Boston deal, Cleveland signed veterans Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Jeff Green and Jose Calderon.

Tuesday marks the ninth time in Cavs history that they’ve opened the season with the Celtics, but this one feels like the biggest one yet.

Key: Avuncular Adversary

If someone told you at the start of last year’s Playoffs that next season’s opening night point guard matchup featured Kyrie Irving suiting up for the Celtics against Cleveland’s Derrick Rose, you might’ve thought they were nuts.

Turns out, they were actually clairvoyant – as the Wine & Gold’s former four-time All-Star, and the man who hit the biggest shot in franchise history, will take the floor for the opponent for the first time since being tabbed with the top overall pick back in 2011.

The Cavaliers received Isaiah Thomas – the Eastern Conference’s top scorer – in return, but while he rehabs a hip injury, Rose will run the point for Cleveland. The Chicago native, still the youngest player to be named MVP, has been outstanding in preseason – mentally unburdened and physically rejuvenated. Even on a bad Knicks team in which he wasn’t the first offensive option, Rose averaged 18.0 points per in 64 starts. On the Cavaliers, he’ll have more space and open looks than he’s had in some time.

On the other side, Kyrie will get his video tribute, but that’s about as comfortable as Cleveland intends to make it for No. 11 on Tuesday night. The former Blue Devil has been excellent for Boston in the preseason. But he’ll run into a group of guys (and coaches) who know him pretty well in Tuesday night’s opener.

All the talking is over. All that’s left is to get it on.

Key: First Stop on the Tour

After an unusual summer following Cleveland’s loss in the 2017 Finals, some have dubbed the upcoming campaign “The LeBron James Revenge Tour.”

He finished outside the top three in MVP voting, watched some pundits calling Kevin Durant the new top dog and, above all, saw a former teammate he called a brother demand a trade to escape his shadow. Of course, the drama only escalates when that former teammate suits up for the squad Number 23 loves to hate.

Counting regular season and Playoffs, James has faced off against the Celtics exactly 80 times – averaging 29.3 points, 7.5 boards and 6.4 assists. In last year’s gentleman’s sweep of Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron averaged 29.6 points against Brad Stevens’ team – 34.3 if you exclude his 11-point hiccup in Game 3.

A cranky left ankle that he tweaked in the first week of Camp has limited LeBron to just one game in the preseason, and although Tyronn Lue said on Monday that he’s unsure whether his star forward will go against Boston, it’d be a surprise if he was forced to miss the opener.

With Jae Crowder in the mix, Coach Lue has rearranged the frontline, inserting Kevin Love at the 5 and sliding LeBron to the 4.

With his starters playing extended minutes together only once in the preseason, it’ll be interesting to see how the new lineup works out in live regular season action.

Key: Love Triangle

So much has happened since the storyline of Kevin Love facing off against a Celtics team that ended his postseason dreams seems ancient. Kelly Olynyk took his talents to South Beach and that Boston team isn’t anything close to the team that fell in four First Round games back in 2015.

Love begins his fourth season on the North Coast, fresh off his fourth All-Star bid and easily his best campaign as a Cavalier. Last year, Love was the only player in the Eastern Conference to average 19.0 points and 10.0 boards, posted 41 double-doubles and set a franchise mark when he dropped 34 points in the first quarter in a home win over Portland.

This season, Love will be asked to man the middle, with Tristan Thompson set to come off the bench. And his first assignment in that new role isn’t exactly a traditional center either – as Al Horford begins his second season with the Celtics.

In his initial campaign with Boston, Horford averaged 14.0 points, 6.8 boards and a career-high 5.0 assists per contest – those 5.0 assists leading all NBA centers. The Cavaliers held Horford in check last year; he averaged only 11.1 points in three regular season and five postseason matchups against Cleveland.

Key: Deep in The Q

Dwyane Wade definitely shouldn’t take offense because he didn’t get any love until the fifth key. Gordon Hayward barely got mentioned, and he just signed a major free agent deal heading into the home opener.

The fact is that the future Hall of Famer is part of a loaded squad that had question marks heading into the offseason and came out of the summer with a deeper team than the one that’s dominated the East for three straight seasons. Wade spent a single season in Chicago before coming to Cleveland as a free agent during preseason.

The three-time Champ and 12-time All-Star will be starting across from Derrick Rose in the backcourt, with J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver coming off the bench locked and loaded.

Smith is coming off one of the toughest seasons of his career – averaging just 8.6 points in 41 starts – but he’s still one of the most dangerous long-distance marksmen in the NBA when he gets hot. Korver, who won the three-point percentage title for the third time in the last four seasons one year ago – going .451 from deep – isn’t as mercurial as Swish – he kills with consistency.

At the point, 12-year vet Jose Calderon will spell Derrick Rose. In the frontcourt, the Wine & Gold added rugged former Celtic, Jae Crowder – and he’ll get the start at 3 against his old squad on Tuesday. Jeff Green has been a revelation during the preseason, and he’ll be a key to keeping LeBron on low mileage all season.

And finally, there’s the blue-collar big man, Tristan Thompson, who averaged 8.1 points and 9.2 boards in 74 starts last year but will be coming off the bench with a loaded second unit when the rubber hits the road on Tuesday night at The Q.

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