Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers at Grizzlies

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

Key: All the Way to Memphis

The new-look Cavaliers finally came down to earth on Thursday night, dropping the first game after the All-Star Break, their first since reshaping the roster at the Deadline. But the beauty of the NBA is that the Wine & Gold can find quick redemption, traveling to Memphis for a Friday night showdown with the struggling Grizzlies.

In Thursday’s loss to the Wizards, LeBron James had another fantastic game, but for the first time in a while, didn’t get much help from his teammates – with no fellow starters scoring in the fourth quarter and his teammates going 0-for-10 from the floor in the game’s final nine minutes.

The loss to Washington – Cleveland’s first this season after dropping them twice – puts them into a virtual tie for the fourth-seed in the Eastern Conference Playoff picture.

The Grizzlies have been outside of the postseason realm for some time now, but their seven-game skid heading into All-Star Break almost assured an appearance in this year’s Lottery.

The Cavs have already topped the Grizz once this season, but Memphis has never been an easy place to play for them. They’d love to reverse that trend on Friday night, trying to regain momentum with a heavyweight bout against San Antonio set for Sunday afternoon at The Q.

Key: Grind and Bear It

Playing in a small media market like Memphis, Marc Gasol has long been one of the most underrated players in the NBA.

A model of loyalty and consistency, he’s posted solid numbers throughout each of his ten years with the Grizzlies. The difference between this year and seasons past is that when mid-April rolls around, the Grizzlies will not be “the team nobody wants to face.”

The former NBA Defensive Player of the Year and three-time All-Star has missed just a single game for Memphis this season and has once again posted stellar numbers despite the team’s struggles – averaging 17.7 points, 8.4 boards and 4.0 assists in 55 outings.

In his sole meeting against Cleveland last year, Gasol doubled-up with 17 points and 11 rebounds and went off for 27 points in Memphis’ early December loss at The Q.

Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. will have their work cut out for them on Friday night.

Thompson was solid against the Wizards on Thursday night – barely missing a double-double, finishing with 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting to go with nine boards. Nance, who announced before the contest that he’d be switching to his dad’s uniform No. 22 the rest of the way, added a quiet six points and three boards on 3-for-4 shooting.

Key: Road Warrior

LeBron James began his mid-season roll with a 37-point triple-double, canning the game-winner at the buzzer back on February 7 against Minnesota – and he hasn’t slowed down since.

After winning his third career MVP award at this year’s All-Star Game in Los Angeles, the King picked up where he left off last night against the Wizards – scoring 14 of his game-high 32 points in the fourth quarter.

James didn’t get much help down the stretch, scoring the team’s final 14 points as Cleveland’s normally dependable second unit went cold late. LeBron once again flirted with a triple-double – going 13-of-18 from the floor, adding nine boards, eight assists and a pair of steals.

LeBron was excellent against Memphis in Cleveland’s win earlier this season – notching 34 points and 12 assists in the 116-111 victory.

But he hasn’t always had his way at the Grindhouse – shooting less than 50 percent in four of his last six visits. Like most of the starters, James didn’t suit up the last time Cleveland traveled to Memphis, but in his previous visit the season before, the Grizz held him to just 12 points on 4-for-13 shooting.

But they’re a different squad these days and LeBron is in his February mode – so on Friday night, something’s gotta give.

Key: Memphis Revival

Leading up to the Deadline, there was much speculation that veteran guard Tyreke Evans could be on the move.

Instead, the former Rookie of the Year wound up staying with Memphis, the city where he played his college ball and now the place where he’s revived his career – averaging a team-high 19.5 ppg, his best total since winning freshman honors with Sacramento back in 2010.

Evans has led the Grizzlies in scoring on 21 occasions so far this season, including their December 2 loss at The Q – with Evans going off for 31 points and 12 assists, canning five triples in seven attempts.

JR Smith was solid offensively in that contest as well – tallying 17 points, going 6-of-8 from the floor, including 4-of-5 from long-range in the victory.

Swish stayed hot – at least in the first half – on Thursday night. He got off to another strong start, leading everyone with nine points after one quarter and finishing with 15 points overall – his sixth game in the last seven that he’s notched double-figures.

In the combined first quarters of Smith’s last six games – he’s gone 21-of-25 from the floor, including 14-of-16 from three-point range over that span.

Key: Bench Bounce-Back

It’s not normal for the Wine & Gold’s second unit to be outdone, but that’s what happened in Thursday night’s loss to the Wizards – with Washington’s reserves outscoring Cleveland’s, 45-34. No reserve notched double-figures in the loss, with the second team shooting a combined 4-for-13 in the final quarter.

Jeff Green scored all five of his points in the fourth period and Kyle Korver was just 2-of-6 from long-range on the night.

Cleveland’s new additions didn’t fare much better for the first time since the Trade was consummated. Larry Nance Jr. didn’t make a major impact and Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood each went 3-for-7 from the floor in the loss.

The Grizzlies top sixth man is forward Jarell Martin, who’s having his best season as a pro in his third year out of LSU – notching double-figures in 11 of his last 25 games off the bench.

But if the Wine & Gold’s second unit – which at 41.5 ppg still ranks 4th in the NBA – plays even remotely like it has, both before and after the Deadline, the Cavaliers can hope to return to the win column with a Sunday afternoon showdown with the Spurs looming less than two days away.

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