Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers at Pacers

Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Key: Wrapping Up the Roadie

The good news is that on Friday night, the Wine & Gold finally wrap up a five-game,10-day homestand, part of a road stretch that’s had them away from The Q for seven of their last eight outings. The bad news is that they’re playing their worst ball of the season and have to face a team that’s beaten them twice already this year in an arena where they’ve struggled mightily.

The surprising Pacers, sitting one game above the .500 mark at 21-20, manhandled the Cavs by 17 points at home back on November 1 before snapping their 13-game win streak here at Bankers Life Fieldhouse five weeks later in a 106-102 victory.

History is not on their side – rolling into a gym where they’ve dropped 13 of their last 15 regular season contests.

Of course, these are two different teams – with the Pacers now a young, rebuilding team led by Victor Oladipo and the Cavaliers currently experiencing some major growing pains while reinventing the rotation once again as we approach the halfway point.

The Wine & Gold need a good performance, if only to feel good about the trip and head home with some momentum for Monday’s big matchup with the Warriors. The Pacers would love to continue their first-half mastery of the team that rolled them in four First Round contests last spring.

Key: Home Improvements

One year ago, the storyline of any Pacers-Cavaliers matchup would be the battle between All-Stars LeBron James and Paul George. But this is unquestionably Victor Oladipo’s team these days.

Arguably the current leader for the league’s Most Improved Player award, Oladipo has made the most of his career rebirth in Indianapolis, making sizeable statistical leaps across the board – most notably his scoring average (15.9 ppg – 24.6 ppg). The second overall pick of the underwhelming 2013 Draft has scored 20 or more on 19 occasions this year, with six 30-point games and a 47-point outburst against the Nuggets.

One of those 30-point games came against Cleveland at The Q, going for 33 on 6-for-13 shooting from long-range. He went for 26 in Indiana’s home win last month, only this time going 5-for-7 from beyond the arc, adding seven assists and a steal.

The Cavaliers would love to make the former Indiana star work on both ends of the floor, but they’re going to need more from a struggling J.R. Smith to accomplish that. Swish has embodied Cleveland’s recent funk – taking the collar from the floor over the last two contests, going 0-for-12 from the floor, including 0-of-8 from three-point range.

The Pacers kept him in check in their win at The Q, but Smith knocked down five triples to finish with 15 points in Cleveland’s December 8 visit.

Key: King Cool

LeBron James got himself going on the offensive end again on Thursday night – finishing with 26 points on 9-for-16 shooting, going 8-of-10 from the stripe and adding three boards.

But James – who, like the other starters, sat the fourth quarter – also finished with a season-low single assist. But it’d be tough to lay that one on the four-time MVP, with his fellow starters combining to go 8-for-24 from the floor in the team’s worst loss of the season.

Like his teammates, Numeral 23 is ready to return home – but not before taking on an Eastern team he’s taken pleasure in tormenting over the years: averaging 27.7 points, 7.8 boards and 6.3 assists in 75 regular and postseason career contests (50-25) against the Pacers.

Without having to deal with Paul George these days, James has been a little bit ahead of schedule this season – averaging 31.0 points, 8.5 boards and 9.5 assists through the first two meetings of the year. For much of the night, LeBron will lock horns with Indiana’s rock-steady forward, Thaddeus Young, who comes into tonight’s matchup averaging 19.5 points in two meetings with Cleveland this season – going off for 26 points in the Pacers’ early-season victory at The Q.

Key: Bench Boost

The Pacers and Cavaliers are on different paths to success right now, but both squads boast strong second units.

Over the last two games, Cleveland’s second unit has done some of the heavy lifting, with Tyronn Lue’s starters struggling on both ends.

Even with the team mired in a mid-season funk, Jeff Green has been a bright spot – averaging 14.3 points over the last five games. Kyle Korver has canned five three-pointers in two of the Cavs’ previous four games, but much of his scoring’s been done in garbage time. Like most of his teammates, Dwyane Wade struggled from the field in Toronto, but has been solid coming into last night’s loss – notching double-figures in three of his previous four games.

And despite the team struggling, Tristan Thompson has been looking more like his old self of late – finishing with eight points and eight boards against the Raptors – grabbing six of Cleveland’s eight offensive boards on the night.

The Pacers also get good production from their bench, mainly from impressive sophomore, Domantas Sabonis – who arrived as part of the Paul George deal to OKC and will likely move into a starting role tonight, with Trey Lyles on the shelf. The Hall of Famer’s skilled scion is fourth on the Pacers in scoring at 12.5 ppg, doubling the average from his rookie campaign.

The Cavs will see an old friend coming off the bench, however, with Lance Stephenson coming off a 15-point, 8-rebound outing in Indiana’s Wednesday night loss to the Heat.

Key: Feeling the Love

The Cavaliers are no longer a team propelled by a “Big 3.” But, despite the vastly-improved second unit, the Cavaliers are still pretty much a Big 2 team – with Kevin Love having another All-Star-caliber season. And quite simply: if the Cavaliers are going to shake out of their mid-season skein, they’ll need Love to regain the rhythm he had heading into the road trip.

Love was very good in Saturday night’s win over Orlando – finishing with 27 points and five boards, going 6-for-12 from long-range in the junket’s sole victory. But he’s struggled mightily in the other three contests – going 4-for-26 from the floor, including 1-for-9 from deep in losses to Boston, Minnesota and Toronto.

Love is still among the league leaders in double-doubles – 22 (7th) – but he hasn’t grabbed double-digit boards since the last game of Cleveland’s last road trip. The four-time All-Star would love to turn things around tonight and he’s had decent success against the Pacers so far this season – doubling-up with 13 points and 13 boards in the first meeting at The Q and finishing with 20 points and seven boards in last month’s loss here at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

If the Wine & Gold hope to snap out of their current malaise, they’ll definitely need their starting big man to find his form.