Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers vs. Mavericks

Glenn James/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Key: Easter at The Q

One of the strangest regular seasons in the Cavaliers' recent memory is winding down as the calendar turns to April and the Wine & Gold embark on their final six-game stretch.

On Easter Sunday, they take on the Lottery-bound Mavericks in a tuneup for what promises to be an important three-game run this week – facing off against the Raptors, Wizards and Sixers before closing out the campaign with a home-and-home against the Knicks.

On Friday night, the Wine & Gold rallied late behind Jordan Clarkson and LeBron James – winning their fifth straight over the Pelicans at The Q and for the seventh time in their last eight outings.

As far as the Mavericks go – they’ve dropped seven of their last eight and only Memphis and Phoenix have a worse record in the West.

The Cavaliers have dominated Dallas of late – winning five of the last six meetings, including a 38-point mauling that Cleveland put on the Mavericks in their last visit to The Q.

With the Sixers hot on their tails for the fourth spot in the East, the Wine & Gold can’t afford a slip-up against a cellar-dweller on Sunday.

Key: Crown Royal

Of all the records King James has piled up over the course of his Hall of Fame career, surpassing Michael Jordan’s mark for scoring consistency on Friday night surely ranks as one of the most impressive.

LeBron put that one behind him early, netting 11 points in the opening period to run his streak to 867 straight games. With that milestone in his pocket, James got to work on the win – scoring eight of his game-high 27 points during a critical fourth-quarter push that sealed the victory for Cleveland.

On the night, the 14-time All-Star went 12-for-24 from the floor to go with nine boards, a game-high 11 assists and a steal.

And in terms of sustained excellence, LeBron is now averaging a triple-double over his last 24 games – averaging 30.4 points, 10.0 rebounds and 10.1 assists – shooting over 55 percent from the floor over that span.

LeBron doubled-up in Cleveland’s victory over the Mavericks earlier this season – finishing with 19 points and 11 boards in the seven-point win in Dallas.

Key: Changing of the Guard

On the defensive end, James will have to deal with the Mavericks’ leading scorer, Harrison Barnes, who’s having a solid second season in the Big D.

The seventh-overall pick out of North Carolina in 2012, Barnes has taken the reigns of Rick Carlisle’s squad as Dirk Nowitzki wraps up his Hall of Fame career with Dallas. So far this season, Barnes – who’s averaging 18.8 points per – has been the model of consistency, posting 31 games of at least 20 points as well as six 20-point, 10-rebound games and three 30-point outings.

In the Mavericks’ recent loss to Minnesota, Barnes led Dallas with 19 points on 8-for-18 shooting, and he doubled-up in Dallas’ loss to the Cavaliers earlier this season – finishing with 23 points and 12 boards.

The Mavericks have made a concerted effort to form some chemistry between Barnes and impressive rookie, Dennis Smith Jr., this season as they continue to build for the future. The high-flying rookie from North Carolina State has already posted 14 games of at least 20 points and has five contests handing out double-digit assists.

Smith was outstanding against Cleveland in the Mavs’ November 11 loss – notching 21 points, seven assists, five boards and a pair of blocks.

Key: Find Your Center

It’s been easy to name the Cavaliers’ starting small forward going into each contest this season. At just about every other position – mostly due to an ubiquitous injury bug – it’s been a toss-up from night to night.

Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr. and Jeff Green have all manned the middle for the Wine & Gold this season and as we head into the final week-and-a-half of the regular season, that position is still somewhat in flux.

On Friday night against New Orleans, Larry Nance Jr. got the start, but the third-year man from Wyoming couldn’t shake the funk that’s enveloped his offensive game since returning from a hamstring injury on March 23. After doubling-up in that game against the Suns, Nance has failed to net double-digits in any of his next four outings, shooting just 32 percent from the floor over that frustrating stretch.

Kevin Love averaged 20.3 points and 10.0 boards in the first four games after returning from a fractured left hand, but after suffering a front tooth subluxation against the Heat – and having to sit out the final game of Cleveland’s recent roadie – Love struggled in Friday’s win at The Q, finishing with eight points on 3-for-11 shooting.

With Love and Nance struggling, Tristan Thompson stepped in and looked like his old self again – grabbing 14 boards in 21 minutes off the bench, six of those off the offensive glass. Since Thompson has returned from an ankle injury back on March 23, he’s tallied double-digit boards in four of five outings, averaging an even 10.0 rpg over that span.

Key: Straight to the Point

You can add point guard to the list of positions that have been an almost nightly mystery for the Cavaliers.

The injury bug struck the Cavaliers backcourt on Friday night when starter George Hill sprained his left ankle in the second half of Friday’s win at The Q. The 10th-year man from IUPUI had struggled over his last three games, but he was a steadying presence at the point.

With Hill on the shelf, the Wine & Gold will likely turn to another seasoned vet in Jose Calderon, who’ll look to run his starting record to 22-9 as a Cavalier. Calderon obviously isn’t the scoring threat that Hill is, but he’s rock-solid running the show; over his last six games, Calderon is shooting 55 percent from the floor and 64 percent from beyond the arc and hasn’t committed a single turnover in either of his last two appearances.

In terms of scoring, the Cavs have come to depend on their young combo-guard off the bench – and Jordan Clarkson was very good again on Friday night at The Q – keying a third-quarter run and finishing with 23 points on the night, going 9-for-13 from the floor, including a perfect 4-of-4 from three-point range. Clarkson has posted 14 games of 20 or more points off the bench this season, including three with the Wine & Gold.

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