Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers vs. Celtics - Game 6

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Key: Stayin' Alive

On Friday night, the Cavaliers will gear up for their 99th game of the season – and this one’s about as big as it gets.

Through the first five games of the Eastern Conference Finals, it’s truly been a tale of two cities.

The Cavaliers have looked sharp in two home games, but sloppy on the road – and the same can be said for Boston. The problem for Cleveland is that Boston doesn’t have to win at The Q – and the Wine & Gold are counting on that scenario on Friday night when they try to force a Game 7 back in Beantown on Sunday.

On Wednesday night, the collective effort from Games 3 and 4 was missing right from the first quarter – with Kevin Love and LeBron James scoring 18 of Cleveland’s 19 points and that uneven production continuing throughout the night, with the Cavs' other three starters combining for just 10 points in the game.

But the series has gone chalk at home.

The Cavaliers have won their last seven at The Q – outscoring opponents by over 12 points per – and Boston is 1-6 on the road this postseason. Cleveland has won 10 of its last 13 against the Celtics at Quicken Loans Arena and they’ll need that gym rocking on Friday night if they hope to keep their season alive.

Key: Homecoming King

There’s not much more the Cavaliers can ask of LeBron James this season or this series – but odds are he still has something major up his sleeve for Friday night and beyond against the squad he loves to hate.

On Thursday afternoon, James was named to the All-NBA First Team for the 12th time in his career – including 11 straight – eclipsing Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone for most in NBA history.

In Wednesday night’s loss in Boston, the four-time MVP notched his NBA-leading 11th double-double of the postseason, finishing with 26 points and 10 boards, but Boston has held the King to just five assists over his last four quarters – and he’s also been bitten by the turnover bug as of late, committing 13 miscues in his last two games.

But as dangerous as James is normally in the Playoffs, he’s even more deadly with his back against the wall.

In 21 career contests when facing elimination, LeBron is averaging 33.5 points, 10.8 boards and 7.3 assists per – with his scoring average ranking highest in league history. Since his return to Cleveland, he’s even better – averaging 36.9 points on 52 percent shooting to go with 12.0 boards, 9.1 assists, 2.6 steals and 1.4 blocks.

In those seven games, he’s scored more than 40 points in four of them.

Key: Backcourt Battle

Guard play has been a key to the series through the first five games – and not all of it has been good on either side.

As the ECF has played out differently in each home team’s gym, the Cavaliers’ backcourt has been a big part of that difference.

There’s no getting around the stats: In three games in Boston, JR Smith is averaging 2.0 points on 14 percent shooting, going 0-for-11 from three-point range. In two home games in Cleveland, he’s averaging 10.0 points and is 6-of-10 from deep.

George Hill’s numbers are only slightly better in Boston – 5.0 points per on 31 percent shooting – but much better at The Q, where he’s scored 13 points in each contest on an even 50 percent shooting from the floor.

The Wine & Gold would love to see those trends continue on Friday night. Boston’s guard duo has had a similar predicament.

Jaylen Brown has looked flummoxed in two games in Cleveland and Terry Rozier has been over-amped at times – although he did double-up with 16 points and a game-high 11 assists in Game 4. Boston’s duo did outscore Cleveland’s, 25-9, on Wednesday night at TD Garden, but it took them a combined 7-for-30 shooting to do it.

If the Cavaliers hope to extend their season, they’ll need their starting guards to be productive.

Key: Middle Men

The postseason is all about matchups and adjustments and both squads have continued to tweak lineups throughout the series.

On Wednesday night, Brad Stevens moved Aron Baynes into the starting lineup, moving Al Horford to the four-spot where he primarily matched up with Kevin Love.

Neither player had a monster night, but Horford doubled-up with 14 points on just nine field goal attempts and led both squads with 12 rebounds. Love got off to a great start, finishing with 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting in the first quarter – but he added just four points on 2-for-7 shooting the rest of the way.

Horford was a game-high +22 on the night; Love was -23.

Love has still been very good over the last couple rounds – averaging 18.8 points and 11.0 boards over his last eight outings.

In the middle, neither Baynes nor Tristan Thompson put up big numbers in Game 5. Thompson had been solid throughout the series, but he struggled on Wednesday night – finishing with just a single point, missing all three field goal attempts, adding six boards and an assist.

Baynes finished with six points and seven boards, but he also led both squads with three blocks.

Key: On a Roll

After notching 14 points in each of Cleveland’s two ECF victories here at The Q, Kyle Korver saw just 18 minutes of action off the bench on Wednesday night in Boston – finishing with seven points, going 2-of-5 from long-distance.

Korver got off to a slow start this postseason, but he’s been outstanding since the calendar turned to May – averaging 12.3 points on 56 percent shooting from the floor, including 51 percent from beyond the arc over his last nine contests.

For much of the postseason, the 15-year veteran has been Cleveland’s third scoring option, and he’ll likely see more action – and get more shots – in Friday night’s elimination affair.

Larry Nance Jr. didn’t put up big numbers off the bench in Game 5, but he did make a statement – tightening up Marcus Morris after the salty forward barked in his grill early in the second quarter. After the beef, Cleveland went on a 12-3 run, but couldn’t sustain the run heading into halftime.

Jeff Green still hasn’t rediscovered his rhythm from the previous Round – failing to net double-figures in any of the first five games of the Eastern Conference Finals. Jordan Clarkson can’t complain about his shot attempts in the series, but he’ll need to start knocking them down if he hopes to extend his first career playoff run – shooting just 31 percent on 10-for-32 in the series.

On the Celtics side, they got very good production from their reserves on Wednesday – with Morris and Marcus Smart tallying 13 points apiece – going a combined 6-of-12 from beyond the arc.

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