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Five Keys: Cavaliers at Pelicans

Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Key: Battle in the Big Easy

The Cavaliers wrap up their brief two-game roadie on Saturday night, traveling to the Big Easy for a battle with the Pelicans before returning home for the second-half of the weekend back-to-back on Sunday against New York.

The Cavs are coming off their second loss this week to an overachieving foe – falling on Wednesday night in Brooklyn. In that loss, the Wine & Gold again got off to a sluggish start before erasing the Nets’ double-digit fourth quarter lead. After a keystone cops finish at the free-throw line for both teams, however, the Nets had just enough in the tank to hold off a Cavaliers team trying to affect their draft position.

For the third straight game, an opponent canned exactly 17 three-pointers, much to the dismay of Tyronn Lue – who’ll make another lineup change heading into tonight’s battle in New Orleans.

The Pelicans are coming off a three-game trip – taking two of three, including Thursday night’s 114-106 win over DeMarcus Cousins’ former squad in Sacramento.

The Cavaliers fell in an overtime thriller last season in the bayou and would love to flip that script before heading home for Sunday night’s home showdown with the Knicks.

Key: Return of Rose

Tonight’s contest will mark the Cavaliers’ sixth game of the season and will also represent the team’s fourth lineup change.

It’s not that Coach Lue has been indecisive. Injuries and inefficient play have made some of the decisions for him, but with so many new faces, it should be expected that Lue might tinker with the lineup repeatedly until the final product takes the floor for the second season in late-April.

Tonight’s change comes in light of Derrick Rose’s ability to suit up after missing two games following a left ankle sprain suffered last Friday night in Milwaukee. With Rose back on the floor, Lue will essentially return his starting five to its most natural state – with Rose at the point, J.R. Smith at the 2, LeBron James at small forward, Kevin Love at the 4 and Tristan Thompson in the middle.

Rose was solid-but-not-spectacular through his first two regular season games as a Cavalier – averaging 13.0 points on 44 percent shooting but with only three total assists.

With Rajon Rondo still on the shelf for New Orleans, Alvin Gentry has tried myriad backcourt looks. In Thursday’s win, the Pelicans frequently went with a lineup of Cousins and four guards, but the most effective point turned out to be ageless wonder, Jameer Nelson, who finished with 18 points and six assists – canning four triples in 35 minutes off the bench.

Key: Twin Towers

As good as Nelson was on Thursday, when you’re taking on the Pelicans, you’re not worried about guards. And for Saturday night, not only will they be locked and loaded with “Big Cuz” – who’s coming off a 41-point, 23-rebound, six-assist effort against Sacto – but could very have Anthony Davis back in the lineup.

The twin tower experiment in New Orleans still hasn’t paid huge dividends in wins, but the Pelicans definitely boast the best 1-2 big man combination in the league.

Cousins is already off to a mammoth start to the season – doubling up in all five contests, averaging 33.0 points, 14.2 boards and 4.8 assists. The mercurial seventh-year man from Kentucky has had some great games against Cleveland in his career – he doubled-up in both meetings last year, and the first of those was with 11 assists. But, knock on wood, in 13 career meetings, he’s never topped the 30-point plateau.

After tweaking his left knee and quad on Tuesday night in Portland, Anthony Davis sat out New Orleans’ win on Thursday, but he hopes to return for tonight’s contest. Before Tuesday’s injury – which limited The Brow to just five minutes of action – Davis was off to another All-Star start to the season, averaging 31.7 points and 16.7 boards through his first three outings.

Key: Slump-Buster

The Cavaliers were the top three-point shooting squad in the Eastern Conference last year – setting multiple franchise records from beyond the arc. But this year, not only have they been victimized by the long-ball, but their own percentage has slipped considerably.

They dropped 16 treys on the Bulls and Kyle Korver was responsible for five of the 12 they canned on Wednesday in Brooklyn, but Cleveland is shooting 35 percent from long-distance on the year while their last three opponents are shooting at a 45 percent clip.

J.R. Smith had a difficult go of it last season, both on and off the floor, before rallying late in the Playoffs. But Swish, who rejoined the starting lineup earlier this week against Chicago, has struggled to find his shot again this year. After finishing with 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting in the opener against Boston, the 14th-year guard has yet to rediscover his mojo – going 6-for-34 from the floor and 2-for-22 from beyond the arc over his next four contests.

Smith, whose NBA career began in the Big Easy, would love to find his shot on Saturday night at the Smoothie King Center.

For his part, Korver has simply picked up where he left off – shooting 52 percent from long-range, including a season-high 22-point outburst on Wednesday night in Brooklyn, going 5-for-11 from deep, including three fourth-quarter bombs that almost capped the Cavaliers’ comeback.

Key: Smooth King

As the Cavaliers prepare to make another lineup change on Saturday, that means LeBron will start in his third different position this year. (Although it could be argued he plays just about every position at some point every night.) After two straight starts at the point, James will be back in his normal position at the 3 for Saturday night’s meeting in New Orleans.

On Wednesday night, LeBron passed Zydrunas Ilgauskas and now sits atop the franchise’s all-time games-played list with 772 appearances in a Cavs uniform.

Of course, Numeral 23 marked the occasion in style – notching his first triple-double of the season (and 56th of his career) with a game-high 29 points to go with 13 assists, 10 boards and four blocks.

The four-time MVP also posted a triple-double the last time he and the Pelicans tangled, finishing with 26 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds and over his last six meetings with New Orleans, he’s averaging 31.5 points on 53 percent shooting.

The King also comes into tonight’s contest with 399 career outings of at least 30 points and can become just the fifth NBA player to reach 400 – joining Michael Jordan-562, Karl Malone-435, Kobe Bryant-431 and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-429.

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