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Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers vs. Clippers

David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele
Cavs.com Beat Writer

Key: Stay Hot at Home

On Friday night, the Wine & Gold look to stay hot at The Q, sweep the three-game homestand and improve to 7-2 on their own floor since the All-Star Break when they welcome the red-hot and well-rested Clippers to Cleveland.

On Wednesday evening, two nights after dropping the Pistons at home, the Cavaliers took down the league’s top squad – (albeit without their MVP frontrunner, Giannis Antetokuonmpo) – running out to a big lead and holding off the Bucks in the closing moments, with Collin Sexton canning big shots down the stretch for the second straight game.

The Clippers come into tonight’s matchup having won three straight and nine of their last 10 – including a six-point win over the Pacers on Tuesday night.

Tonight’s meeting in Cleveland is the first of a four-game road trip for Doc Rivers’ Playoff-bound squad, which still has its eyes on the coveted third seed out West.

Both teams are much different than they’ve been in the past, but Cleveland has topped its last three foes by an average of nearly 13 points at home and has usually found a way to master the Clippers at The Q – posting a 19-4 mark on the corner of Huron and Ontario.

Key: Bull in the Ring

Collin Sexton may not win the Rookie of the Year award, but if so, it’s only because he ran out of season.

The durable first-year guard – the only Cavalier to suit up for all 72 games this season – has been on an historic heater of late and is showing no signs of slowing down.

On Wednesday night, the Young Bull extended his string of scoring at least 23 points to seven games – something that hasn’t been achieved since Tim Duncan did so back in 1998. Sexton is also the first Cavalier rookie to tally at least 20 points in seven straight games – joining Ron Harper, who did so in 13 consecutive contests in 1987 – and his current run is the longest by any rookie this season.

And as impressive as the numbers are, what’s equally encouraging is his willingness to step up and take the big shot – drilling a pair of triples in the final two minutes of Monday’s win over Detroit and canning a huge trey with 1:42 to play on Wednesday to seal the victory over Milwaukee.

On Friday night, Sexton will lock horns with another rock-solid rookie in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who leads all rookies in minutes (25.8) and scoring (10.3ppg) on a team with a record above .500.

Drafted three spots behind Sexton, the former Kentucky standout hasn’t made quite the impact of his opposite, but he is also making a late push in his first year – coming into tonight’s contest having notched double-figures in nine of his previous 10 outings, including a 14-point, 10-assist effort two games ago against Brooklyn.

Key: Best Off the Bench

Jordan Clarkson has been one of the best reserves in the Association this year and has been a godsend for the Wine & Gold during some rough stretches this season – leading the squad in scoring on 26 occasions despite not starting a single game this year.

But as good as he’s been, he’ll meet one of the best to ever do it off the bench in Lou Williams.

The 45th overall pick of the 2005 Draft, Williams has started just 109 of his 927 career games and has still averaged double-figures in each of the last 12 seasons.

This year, he eclipsed Dell Curry and Jamal Crawford as the top bench scorer in league history and his 40-point outburst against the Thunder earlier this month marked his 28th game of at least 30 points off the bench, passing Ricky Pierce for tops all-time.

Five of the last six 40-point performances by a reserve have come courtesy of Lou Williams. The sixth belongs to Clarkson – who went off for a franchise-record 42 against the Nets in triple-overtime in the final game before the Break.

So far this season, Clarkson has posted 21 games of at least 20 points – a new career-high – and third-best among NBA reserves this season.

In Wednesday’s win over Milwaukee, the fifth-year guard finished with 23 points, going 9-for-17 from the floor to go with five boards, two assists and a pair of steals.

Key: Forward March

Clippers forward Danilo Gallinari is one of the more underrated players in the league.

The 10th-year man from Italy has averaged at least 14.6ppg in each of his last nine seasons and is having arguably the best campaign of his outstanding career – averaging career bests in scoring, rebounding, field goals, three pointers and overall shooting percentage.

Gallinari comes into tonight’s contest ranked 4th in the league from the stripe (.901), 5th from beyond the arc (.438) and tops overall in offensive efficiency.

He’s gone for at least 20 points in each of his last seven outings, including a 20-point, 11-rebound showing in L.A.’s win over Brooklyn and a game-high 24-point effort on Tuesday night against Indiana.

On Friday night, he’ll match up with another international import looking to make his mark in Cedi Osman.

The young Cedi, who’s upped his scoring average nearly 10 points from a season ago, cooled down on Wednesday night after posting back-to-back 20-point efforts – finishing with eight points on 3-for-10 shooting.

Despite struggling against the Bucks, Osman’s been very good of late – averaging 16.0 points and 5.5 boards over Cleveland’s last six games.

Key: Whole in the Middle

Coach Larry Drew almost didn’t know what to do with his embarrassment of riches in the middle on Wednesday night – finally getting his full complement of big men back after a season-long battle with the injury bug.

Tristan Thompson returned to the lineup after a 26-game absence with a foot injury and Larry Nance Jr. returned after a chest injury sidelined him for five straight.

Both came off the bench and saw limited action, and both were impressive in their abbreviated stints.

Thompson finished with seven points and six boards – going 3-for-3 from the floor in 12 minutes of work. Nance came off the bench to add seven points, seven boards, a team-best five assists, two steals and a pair of blocks.

But even with the return of the veteran bigs, Ante Zizic still got the start – his sixth straight – and finished with eight points and a team-high-tying 10 boards, scoring all eight points and grabbing seven of his 10 rebounds in the fourth quarter.

Depending on if he starts once again, he’ll lock up with L.A.’s Big Z – Ivaca Zubac – acquired in a cross-town deal with the Lakers at the Deadline.

Zubac has been in the starting lineup for the Clippers since his arrival, and while he’s not asked to carry much of the scoring load, has still managed double-figures in four of his last six outings.

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