Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers vs. Lakers

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

Key: Lakers on the Lake

After warming up with the Sixers on Saturday and the Hawks on Tuesday, the Wine & Gold get to the main course on Thursday night -- a nationally-televised matchup with the improving Lakers, back in the limelight after a brief period of post-Kobe dormancy.

The Wine & Gold have been the hottest team in the NBA since early November, winning 15 of their last 16, including Tuesday’s one-sided victory over Atlanta.

On Tuesday night, the Wine & Gold used a big second quarter, a pair of double-doubles by LeBron James and Kevin Love and 52 combined points from a second unit playing without Dwyane Wade to take their second straight over the Hawks.

The Lakers recently snapped a five-game losing streak before winning two straight to start their road trip. They dropped an overtime decision on Monday night at The Garden and wrap up their four-game roadie at The Q tonight.

The Cavaliers – who’ve won each of the last six against the Lakers --- have been good this season in terms of tightening up young teams with something to prove. Cleveland’s veteran-laden squad will look to do the same tonight.

Key: Eyes on the Ball

Although it’s the Lakers’ other rookie – Kyle Kuzma – who leads the squad in scoring (16.1 ppg), the media spotlight shines brightest on young Lonzo Ball, the 2nd overall pick in this past Draft.

The initial reasons were (and remain) obvious, but now the unorthodox former Bruin has had to prove it on the floor, and he’s been hit-and-miss through the first third of his rookie campaign. His numbers aren’t spectacular (8.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 7.0 apg) but they illustrate his ability to do everything pretty well.

Ball, who just turned 20 in late October, already has a pair of triple-doubles this season and became the youngest player to do so earlier this season in Milwaukee, on a night in which he became the first player in NBA history to tally at least 19 points, 13 assists, 12 rebounds, three blocks and three steals in a single game.

Jose Calderon doesn’t put up flashy numbers, but he does have an 11-2 mark as a starter with Cleveland, and he’s been especially good on the offensive end over his last three outings – averaging 10.3 points, going 11-for-17 from the floor, including 7-of-10 from long-distance over that span.

He’ll have his hands full with the talented rookie tonight, but if he stays on his current path, he’ll make the youngster have to do work at both ends.

Key: Field Goal Kicker

LeBron James could add nothing to his game from year-to-year and still be the best player on the planet. But this offseason, he honed his shooting skills – and, somehow, it’s made him more lethal than ever.

Against the Hawks, James went 11-for-13 from the floor, the third-best shooting mark of his illustrious career. This season, the four-time MVP who prides himself on efficiency is 6th in the NBA in field goal percentage (.583) and is the only non-big man in the Top 10.

As great as he was shooting the ball in Tuesday’s win over Atlanta, he was just as excellent distributing the rock --- handing out a career-high-tying 17 assists to go with seven boards and two steals.

In the past, a LeBron-Lakers matchup meant a battle with Kobe Bryant. But on Tuesday night, James – who averaged 30.0 points, 6.5 and 8.0 assists against L.A. last season – will start off against high-flying sophomore, Larry Nance Jr., who’s father’s jersey hangs in the rafters.

But LeBron will also see plenty of Brandon Ingram off to an impressive start to his sophomore season – already dropping 32 points on the Warriors – and some Kyle Kuzma, the Western Conference’s reigning Rookie of the Month.

Key: Middle Management

After missing the previous 19 games with a calf injury, Tristan Thompson made his return to the lineup on Tuesday night.

And although he didn’t make a difference in six minutes of action, he could be a bigger factor tonight – going against a team that’s the NBA’s best at scoring the ball in the paint, averaging 54.2 ppg from close-range, which would be the second-highest total in history since the league began tracking the stat back in 1996-97.

A big part of that success is because of their veteran big man, Brook Lopez, who can score from the perimeter as well – this season becoming the first Lakers center to hit five threes in a game. But fourth-year forward, Julius Randle, is also a load in the post – averaging 12.4 points and 6.3 boards off the bench for Luke Walton’s squad this season.

However, Kevin Love’s been up for every challenge this season, tied for 4th in the league with 18 double-doubles. In 22 career contests against the Lakers, Love has doubled-up 16 times (including one triple-double) – averaging 24.0 points and 16.0 boards in two meetings with the Lakers last season.

Key: Downright Offensive

Granted, it was against the lowly Hawks, but even without the services of Isaiah Thomas (the East’s leading scorer last season), Derrick Rose (who’s notched double-figures in every appearance this season) and Dwyane Wade (who ranks 10th in the NBA averaging 12.3 ppg off the bench), the Cavaliers still put up 123 points, connected on 20 three-pointers and handed out a season-high 35 assists on 48 makes.

Early in the season, it seemed the Wine & Gold wouldn’t be the same three-point shooting squad they’d been in the past, but with Tuesday’s bombardment of Atlanta, the Cavs have now made double-digit triples in a franchise-best 17 straight contests.

Offensively, the Cavaliers have been hitting on all cylinders after a sluggish start – topping the century mark in 21 consecutive games, the second-longest stretch in team history. (They still need 15 more to catch the 1979-80 team, which featured Austin Carr’s 11.8 ppg average.)

But one area of offensive improvement that might mean the most in late spring is the squad’s efficiency from the free throw stripe – shooting .806, good for 4th-best in the NBA. So far this season, Cleveland has hit on at least 80 percent of its free throws 13 times and better than 90 percent on another seven occasions.

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