Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers vs. Nuggets

Bart Young/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele
Cavs.com Managing Editor

Key: Home Mojo

The Cavaliers have been pretty good on the road since making a roster shakeup at the Trade Deadline; the problem has been winning at home.

On Thursday night, the Wine & Gold dropped their third contest at The Q since the All-Star Break and are 1-2 through the first part of their five-game homestand – having their 11-game win streak against Philly snapped by a scrappy young Sixers squad that went wire-to-wire for the win.

The Nuggets – trying to hold off the Clippers for the final Playoff spot in the West – come to town on the second half of a back-to-back after knocking off the Grizzlies on Friday night in Memphis.

The Cavaliers have had some good success recently against Denver, going 6-2 over their last eight meetings – including the previous two meetings at The Q. In those victories, the Wine & Gold averaged 124.5 points on 55 percent shooting, including a .492 clip from beyond the arc, handing out 34.0 dimes per and winning by an average of 24.5 points.

The Cavaliers face the Nuggets to start a six-game trip next Wednesday and would love to start building some momentum leading up to that 11-day junket.

Key: Joker's Wild

On Saturday night, the Wine & Gold will face off against one of the most versatile big men in recent memory when Nikola Jokic rolls in with the Nuggets.

Jokic, who just turned 23 last month, is second on the squad in scoring (17.2), while leading the team in rebounding (10.6 rpg) and assists (6.0 apg) – with that assist mark leading all NBA centers this season.

The third-year big man has already piled up six triple-doubles since the New Year, set the record for posting the fastest triple-double (14 minutes, 55 seconds on February 13 vs. San Antonio – finishing that game with 30 points, 15 boards and 17 helpers), and became just the second player in league history 6-10 or taller to notch three straight trifectas – doing so in late February.

Jokic didn’t go quite that crazy against Cleveland last year, but he did double-up in each contest, averaging 21.5 and 11.5 boards in the split.

He’ll tangle primarily with Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. on Saturday night. Thompson has been outstanding on the glass of late – snagging at least 11 rebounds in each of his previous three games, averaging 12.3 rpg over that span.

Nance, who led Cleveland with three blocks (to go with 13 points, seven boards and a steal), has swatted at least two shots in four of his seven appearances and leads the squad with 10 since becoming a Cavalier.

Key: Mr. Saturday Night

After going nuclear again in the month of February, LeBron James picked up where he left off to start off March on Thursday night vs. Philly, narrowly missing his 12th triple-double of the season despite notching his third straight 30-point game (fifth in his last six) – leading all scorers with 30 points on 12-for-24 shooting, adding nine boards, a team-best eight assists and a steal.

The 14-time All-Star also made more history on Thursday, passing Michael Jordan for fourth-place on the all-time list by tallying his 927th career contest of at least 20 points. This year, James has netted at least 20 points on 50 occasions, 30 or more 22 times.

LeBron, whose first-ever home game as a Cavalier was against the Nuggets, has gone for 30-plus nine times over his career against Denver, including a 43-point performance with the Heat. He doubled-up in last year’s win at The Q – finishing with 27 points and 12 boards.

James will see a little of both 10-year vet Wilson Chandler and young Cavs Killer, Will Barton. In his last four games against the Wine & Gold, the sixth-year forward from Memphis has averaged 22.0 points, shooting 54 percent from the floor and 52 percent from long-range despite not starting any of them.

Key: Swishin' and Dishin'

With J.R. Smith serving a one-game suspension on Thursday night, Rodney Hood got his first start as a Cavalier. The fourth-year man from Duke was solid – and the only other starter not named LeBron to finish with more than seven points – posting an 11-point, five-rebound, five-assist night.

It was Hood’s second-straight double-digit scoring performance and fifth in his seven games with the Wine & Gold.

After snapping out of a funk – notching double-figures in eight of 11 games – J.R. Smith, who’ll be back in the lineup on Saturday night, had been cold in three games leading up to Thursday’s misstep, going 4-for-22 from the floor, including 1-of-13 from deep in his previous three contests.

Swish would love to get back on track against the team who he played with for four seasons as a youngster.

Both Hood and Smith will have their hands full with one of the better young two-way guards in the league in Gary Harris. In his fourth year out of Michigan State – improving his numbers in each – Harris leads the Nuggets in scoring, is seventh in the NBA in steals and is coming off a 26-point performance on 11-for-16 shooting in last night’s win over Memphis.

Key: Bench Bosses

With Paul Millsap back in the starting lineup after missing three months following wrist surgery, Mike Malone’s bench gets that much stronger.

Will Barton moved to the second unit and finished with 24 points, with Mason Plumlee and Trey Lyles each contributing strong efforts in Denver’s Friday night win over Memphis.

The Cavaliers bench has been a strong spot all season long – regardless of personnel – and it’s been even better since the Deadline deals. Jordan Clarkson was good again on Thursday – finishing with 10 points, four assists and three boards before getting das boot late in the affair. Clarkson has scored double-figures in six of his seven appearances with Cleveland, including each of the last four – averaging 13.6 points on 51 percent shooting as a Cavalier.

Larry Nance has been rock-solid off the bench as has Rodney Hood in either role.

Kyle Korver – who dazzled both the crowd and teammates when they learned he’s able to clap with one hand – drilled three threes, but has notched double-figures in just one of his last seven outings. Jeff Green struggled in his first game back after sitting with a sore lower back, but he’s been good all season long and should regain his rhythm as the recently-acquired Cavs continue to settle in.

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