Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers at Nuggets

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

Key: Rocky Mountain High

After what had been a somewhat disappointing homestand, the shorthanded Cavaliers pulled it together in a big way to wrap up the five-gamer, trouncing the Pistons at The Q before departing on their longest roadie of the season.

On Monday night – despite being without Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love and Jeff Green – the Wine & Gold manhandled Detroit, outdoing Stan Van’s squad in rebounding (53-40), assists (29-17), fast break points (14-0) and points in the paint (40-26). It was the Cavaliers’ fourth straight win over Detroit at The Q, topping them by an average of 23.5 points per over that span.

Before salvaging the homestand against Detroit, the Nuggets came in and dropped 19 three-pointers on Cleveland in a, 126-117, win on Saturday night. On Tuesday night in Dallas, Mike Malone’s squad gave up a 38-point third quarter and fell to the lowly Mavericks.

The Cavaliers will spend the next 11 days on the road – traveling to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland and Chicago following Tuesday’s showdown in Denver. Tyronn Lue’s team has won four straight road contests heading into the extended junket – they’d love to make it five – beginning in a city where they’ve won in three of their last four visits.

Key: Joker, Joker ... and a Triple

With Tristan Thompson sidelined with a sprained right ankle – and with Cleveland taking on the league’s top rebounder in Andre Drummond – it seemed like the Cavaliers would be at a distinct disadvantage on Monday night against Detroit.

Instead, the Wine & Gold dominated the Pistons in the paint – thanks to the relentless interior work by Larry Nance Jr. who, in his first start as a Cavalier, set career highs in points and rebounds. On the night, Nance finished with 22 points on 9-for-15 shooting and a game-high 15 boards, adding a pair of steals in the win.

It was the first 20-point outing of Nance’s career and he now joins four other father-son duos who have posted 20-point games for the same franchise.

After Drummond, it doesn’t get easier for Nance – who’ll take on one of the most versatile bigs in the Association, Nikola Jokic.

Despite leading the team in assists for the 31st time this season, Jokic had a relatively quiet night on Saturday at The Q – finishing with eight assists to go with nine points and seven boards. But the man they call “the Joker” has been outstanding all season long for Denver.

Over his last 21 games, the third-year center is averaging 19.1 points, 11.1 boards and 7.8 assists. This year, only Jokic, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook have posted games of at least 23 points, 13 boards and 11 assists – all three having done it twice. Only James, Westbrook and James Harden have posted more triple-doubles (12) than Jokic over the past two seasons.

Key: King of the Road

Speaking of trifectas, the King put his foot back on the accelerator when he exploded for 37 points, 15 assists and 10 boards in an overtime win over the Timberwolves back on February 7 – and he hasn’t taken it off since.

In Monday night’s win over Detroit, the four-time MVP notched the sixth 30-point game in his last eight outings – leading both teams with 31 points in 29 minutes, going 11-for-17 from the floor, including 5-of-7 from long range and 4-of-6 from the stripe, adding seven rebounds, seven assists and a steal in the win.

James posted his 13th triple-double of the season on Saturday night – tying his career-high – leading Cleveland with 25 points, 15 assists and 10 boards, going 8-of-19 from the floor and 8-of-11 from the stripe.

For the most part, James will square off against 10-year vet Wilson Chandler, who tallied 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting in Denver’s win on Saturday night in Cleveland. But with the Wine & Gold shorthanded up front, LeBron will also spend some time checking four-time All-Star Paul Millsap, who recently returned from a 44-game stint on the shelf while recovering from a left wrist injury.

Millsap didn’t go off in Saturday’s win at The Q, but his big triple with under two minutes to play proved to be a back-breaker.

Key: Shooter's Touch

Paul Millsap did his worst damage in the final two minutes of Saturday night’s matchup in Cleveland; Gary Harris did damage all night and again in the final two minutes, canning two of his six triples on the night.

Overall, the rapidly-improving fourth-year man from Michigan State led both teams with 32 points, going 10-of-17 from the floor, including 6-of-10 from beyond the arc.

Harris finished with 26 points the previous evening and has now tallied at least 20 points in five of his last seven contests.

In that Saturday night affair, JR Smith was silent in the first half before exploding for 19 after intermission – going 7-for-12 from the floor on the night, including 2-of-5 from long-range two nights after serving a one-game suspension against the Sixers.

But Swish, who’d struggled in his previous three outings before that 19-point night, couldn’t follow up his second-half show on Monday night – going scoreless in nearly 22 minutes of play on Monday night – missing all three field goal attempts.

On Wednesday, the 14th-year guard returns to the arena where he spent four seasons as a youngster. Hopefully, a trip down memory lane will shake Swish out of his late-season slump.

Key: Reserve Judgment

With three main rotation players on the shelf for Monday night’s matchup with Detroit, Cleveland’s reorganized second unit needed to come up big – and it did, with three reserves notching double-figures.

Cedi Osman moved back to the bench and didn’t skip a beat, finishing with 12 points on 5-of-11 from the floor, adding a pair of assists to his six rebounds. Jordan Clarkson and Kyle Korver tallied 11 points apiece – each player (plus Ante Zizic, in his longest run of the season) also finishing with six rebounds off the bench.

Clarkson – the NBA’s second-leading bench scorer at 14.2 ppg – has now tallied double-figure scoring in eight of his last nine games with the Wine & Gold, including six straight.

Korver has registered double-figures in 26 contests (with Cleveland going 20-6) and leads the squad with a plus/minus of +251, good for fifth among all NBA reserves. Korver also drilled 67 fourth-quarter triples this season, which tops the NBA.

Overall, the Cavs second unit is averaging a franchise-best 41.9 ppg this season, fifth-best mark in the league.

Cleveland’s bench will have to be good on Wednesday night, because Denver can bring one of the great all-time Cavs Killers – Will Barton – off theirs. In his previous four games against Cleveland – all off the bench – Barton had been averaging 22.0 points per. And on Saturday night, he stayed true to form, tormenting the Wine & Gold with 23 points on 9-for-17 shooting, adding eight boards and seven assists.

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