Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers vs. Pacers

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Key: Keeping Pace

It’s too early to call it a full-fledged funk, but after winning the first two games of the season, the Wine & Gold have sputtered their way to four losses in their next five outings.

On Sunday night, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kristaps Porzingis handed Cleveland its third straight loss, using the same formula the previous two did – taking advantage of sluggish early play and holding off a late rally.

If the Cavaliers aren’t careful, they’ll meet a team that knows how to put up points – dropping 140 points on the Nets and 130 on Minnesota – and is coming off back-to-back home wins over the Spurs and Kings.

History, however, is not on the Pacers’ side – having dropped 13 of their last 17 against the Cavs, including last year’s four-game First Round sweep. The Cavaliers also dropped Indiana in nine straight contests at The Q. (Unfortunately, we’ve seen what opponents have thought of Cleveland’s winning streaks lately.) But those teams the Wine & Gold beat, although superior in talent, don’t go any harder than Nate McMillan’s current crew. The Cavaliers will have their hands full trying to get off the scheid against Indy tonight.

Key: Center of Attention

By the end of the season, it might be a footnote that makes us chuckle – Kevin Love starting the season at center. But as Coach Tyronn Lue tinkered with his new pieces-parts through the first two weeks of the season, he essentially ended up with his standard starting lineup – sans the erstwhile Uncle Drew.

Tristan Thompson has reclaimed his spot in the middle, but he’s yet to find the rhythm that made him the player Lue once called “the heart and soul of the team” – averaging 4.7 points and 6.3 boards through his first seven outings.

Thompson, who grabbed double-digit boards in all four games of last year’s sweep, hasn’t had a double-figure scoring or rebounding game this season.

He’ll have to be good on both ends to keep up with promising sophomore and scion of the great Arvydas Sabonis – one of the key pieces of their offseason deal with OKC, Domantas Sabonis. After starting the season with 16 points off the bench, the former Gonzaga standout has averaged 12.3 points and 11.7 boards, including a 22-point, 12-rebound performance in the Pacers’ 97-94 win over the Spurs on Sunday night.

Key: Love Broker

The Wine & Gold have been, shall we say, up and down so far this season. But one player who’s been the model of consistency is Kevin Love.

Last year, his best as a Cavalier, the four-time All-Star averaged 19.0 points and 11.1 boards. Through the first seven games of this year, he’s averaging 19.1 points and 11.1 boards.

Despite the team’s struggles, Love has doubled-up in six of Cleveland’s first seven games (finishing with nine boards in the seventh). Over the last four games – since moving back to the 4 – he’s been even better, topping the 20-point plateau in three of them.

In three appearances against a very different-looking Pacers squad last season, the 10th-year forward averaged 20.3 points and 12.7 boards.

He’ll be going up against one of the Pacers’ few holdovers and true glue guys, Thaddeus Young – coming off a year in which he led Indy in field goal percentage and shot a career best 38 percent from deep. He was also the Pacers’ leading rebounder against the Cavs in last year’s First Round battle.

Key: Indy Killer

J.R. Smith broke double-digits for the first time since the opener when he finished with 11 points in Sunday’s loss against New York, but he was still just 3-of-9 from the floor with a pair of three-pointers. Those two games also mark the only two contests in which Smith has attempted a free throw.

If the Cavaliers are going to awake from their early-season interlude, they’re going to need Swish shooting (and defending) with confidence.

The Pacers might actually hope that J.R. is doing well so they see less of Kyle Korver, who absolutely wore Indiana out in two regular season meetings last year – going 18-for-24 from the field, including 14-of-17 from long-range, in a pair of wins, averaging 25.5 points and 5.0 rebounds off the bench. The four-time three-point percentage champ is off to another strong start this season, shooting at a .529 clip, going 18-of-34 from deep.

Either way, the Cavaliers will need some point production against the Pacers’ leading scorer this season, Victor Oladipo – who’s making the most of his starring role in Indy, leading the Pacers in scoring in six of their first seven games, topping the 20-point mark in five of them.

Key: Record Revolution

Over the course of his career, LeBron James has dropped 40-plus points on the Pacers four times. If he notches 41 on Wednesday night, he’ll become just the seventh player (and the youngest) to reach 29,000 career points.

The four-time MVP also comes into the contest on the cusp of another big mark – needing one 30-point outing to become just the fifth player since 1963 with at least 400, joining Michael Jordan-562, Karl Malone-435, Kobe Bryant-431 and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-429.

It’s not unthinkable – with James averaging 32.3 points on 60 percent shooting, including 47 percent from deep to go with 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists in three regular season meetings with Indiana last year. In his most recent regular season battle with the Pacers, LeBron posted – that’s right – 41 points, 14 boards, 11 assists and a block in Cleveland’s 135-130 overtime win last April at The Q.

But more than any of these statistical accomplishments, LeBron would rather get a win on Wednesday night heading into their marquee meeting with the Wizards on Friday night in Washington.

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