Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers vs. Pistons

Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Key: Grand Central

The Cavaliers temporarily got the monkey off their back on Friday night, getting a much-needed win over a Central Division squad that’d flummoxed them through the first part of the season. And Cleveland would love to make a little hay before the end of the month, taking on a struggling Pistons team that’s dropped seven straight twice over the next three nights.

On Friday night, the Wine & Gold looked extra-sharp through the first three quarters before pushing past the Pacers with a sloppy fourth – snapping an ugly two-game skid, avoiding the sweep by Indiana and improving to 15-2 in their last 17 games at The Q.

The Pistons, who got off to a strong 14-6 start, have dropped 11 of their past 14 games since Reggie Jackson went down with a sprained ankle.

The Cavaliers might have precipitated that funk – crushing the Pistons by 28 points in their lone meeting of the season on November 20. The Wine & Gold would love to repeat that feat and find some heat heading into the All-Star Break.

Key: Guarded Optimism

The point guard position has been in flux for both teams all season.

Without Reggie Jackson in the lineup, the Pistons have primarily started Ish Smith at the 1, although Stan VanGundy went with Langston Galloway in Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma City, bringing Smith off the bench to give his second unit a boost. The seventh-year guard from Wake Forest responded with 15 points – his 14th double-figure scoring night in the 17 games since Jackson’s injury.

The Cavaliers point guard situation is not quite as fluid, but Friday night showed that both of Cleveland’s point men are still dangerous offensive weapons.

Isaiah Thomas is still trying to find his rhythm after missing the first half of the campaign – notching double-figures, but probably not the way he’d like to: going 5-for-13 from the floor and finishing with as many turnovers (5) as assists. Still, it’s been less than a month since he’s returned and he’s nowhere near where he should be down the season’s stretch.

Derrick Rose, who also missed a big chunk of the season with an injury, had his best game off the bench as a Cavalier on Friday night – finishing with 14 points in 15 minutes, going 6-of-8 from the floor, including 2-of-3 from long-range in his fourth game back after missing the previous 32 contests.

Key: Middle Management

The one constant in Detroit’s ever-changing universe – other than Stan VanGundy screaming until he’s hoarse this evening – is the paly of Andre Drummond, the league’s leading rebounder (15.2 rpg).

The Pistons iron man in the middle – who also leads the Eastern Conference with 32 double-doubles – has been outstanding all season long and is coming off a massive performance two games ago against Utah, going off for 30 points, 24 boards, four assists, six blocks and three steals.

Whether Tristan Thompson or Kevin Love has started opposite Drummond, the Wine & Gold have always had a good measure of success against the rugged big from UConn – holding him to just eight points and eight boards in the first meeting this season and single-figure scoring in three of the previous five.

Tristan will get his second straight start on Sunday evening after being reinserted into the starting lineup on Friday night, posting his second double-double of the season with 10 points and 10 boards, going 5-for-7 from the floor in the win.

If Drummond has struggled on the offensive end against Cleveland, he’s at least returned the favor, holding Thompson to single-figure scoring in 14 of his 15 previous regular and postseason meetings with Detroit.

Key: Triple-Trouble

Let’s get it out of the way that, yes, LeBron James actually tallied a quadruple-double on Friday night, piling up a career-worst 11 turnovers to taint his eighth triple-double of the season (and 63rd of his career) – finishing with a game-high 26 points on 11-for-17 shooting, adding 11 assists, 10 boards, four steals and a blocked shot in the desperately-needed victory.

James ranks second in triple-doubles this season, trailing only Russell Westbrook, and his eight this season are the second-most he’s had in a single year – posting a career-best 13 in 2016-17.

Sunday’s meeting will be the 74th career matchup – regular season and Playoffs – for LeBron against the Pistons and while he’s posted some memorably mammoth games against Detroit, he cruised through the first meeting of the season, finishing with just 18 points, eight assists and a pair of rebounds in 27 minutes of work in the 28-point drubbing.

He’ll square off primarily against Tobias Harris, who’s having his best offensive season as a pro, averaging 18.0 points per in his third season with Detroit.

Harris was even quieter than James in their first meeting of the year – finishing with just 11 points and five boards in the Pistons’ November 20 defeat.

Key: Slump-Buster

If there was one Cavalier who really needed a breakout game on Friday night, it was J.R. Smith.

After last week’s loss in San Antonio, Coach Lue vowed a lineup change. Jae Crowder was moved to the second unit and there was some thought that Swish might join him. Instead, the former Sixth Man winner went off for season-highs in points (23), three-pointers (7) and field goals made (8) and steals (4).

Friday night’s outburst was the 29th time in his 14-year career that Smith has canned at least seven threes in a game – second-most in NBA history only behind Steph Curry’s 59.

The key for Smith – who was the only Cavalier to struggle against Detroit in the first meeting this year – is the ability to stay consistent after snapping out of a seven-game funk.

Doing so over the next two contests could be a tall order, however, facing off against one of the Association’s nastiest backcourt defenders in Avery Bradley.

The scrappy guard from Texas isn’t known for his offense, but after netting double-figures in seven straight games, Bradley has hit a rough patch on that side of the floor – going a combined 9-for-30 from the field, including 0-for-10 from long-distance over his last three outings.

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