Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers at Rockets

Glenn James/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Key: Deep in the Heart of Texas

The Cavaliers have been accused of playing to their competition so far this year. If that’s the case on Thursday night, we’re in for a good one at the Toyota Center.

The Wine & Gold are still under the .500 mark, but they have won two of three, including their second victory of the season over Milwaukee on Tuesday night at The Q. On Thursday night, they face their first high-ticket Western Conference road test of the season – taking on James Harden and the high-octane Rockets.

The Cavaliers recovered from Sunday afternoon’s clunker against the Hawks with an impressive team-win over the Bucks, withstanding a 40-point barrage by the Greek Freak.

The Rockets have won three straight and five of their last seven, dropping the Knicks and Hawks on the road and returning home to drop 137 points on the Jazz on Monday night. These squads split the season series last year – with Cleveland averaging 120.0 points per – but history is not on the Cavaliers’ side in this matchup. Since the turn of the century, the Rockets are 24-11 against the Wine & Gold, including a 14-3 mark in the Lone Star state.

Both teams have designs on playing ball in mid-June; and they’ll be bringing it full-bore on Thursday night in H-town.

Key: Fear the Beard

Like Tuesday night’s battle with Giannis, the Cavaliers will face a player who – like LeBron James – plays all positions and no position.

And like LeBron, James Harden has recently gone off for 50-plus – dropping 56 points on the Jazz in Houston’s 29-point victory. In that contest, the Beard went 19-for-25 from the floor, including 7-of-8 from long-distance and 11-for-12 from the stripe, adding a game-high 13 assists and a pair of steals.

In 15 career contests against the Cavaliers, Harden has been both brilliant and terrible. In a huge road win two years ago, the Wine & Gold flummoxed the MVP candidate – holding him to 11 points. Last year, on the other hand, he averaged 39.5 points and 13.0 assists in two games against Cleveland.

LeBron, who dropped 57 on the Wizards last Friday, went for 30 points in Tuesday’s win, going 10-of-20 from the floor to go with a team-high nine assists, eight boards and three steals. Last season against Houston, the four-time MVP averaged 24.5 points on 56 percent shooting, adding 10.0 boards and 6.5 assists in the two-game split. They won’t be matched up on each other much on Thursday night, but all eyes will be on two of this generation’s greatest players.

Key: Swishin' and Dishin'

It was great to see Kevin Love bounce back from a pair of subpar performances on Tuesday night. And LeBron doing his 30-point thing is always fun to watch.

But the most welcome sight of that home win over the Bucks was J.R. Smith’s 20-point coming out party – going 7-for-12 from the floor and a season-best 5-of-7 from beyond the arc. With his third trifecta of the night, Swish eclipsed Rashard Lewis for 14th place on the NBA’s all-time list of three-pointers made.

Smith started out the season coming off the bench and had yet to find his shooting stroke since rejoining the starting lineup. The 14-year vet was literally both hot and cold in two meetings with Houston last year – canning five triples in Cleveland’s home win last November and taking the collar on four attempts in a mid-March loss at the Toyota Center.

Smith’s been good on the defensive end and he’ll have to be on Thursday, trying to slow down Houston’s second-leading scorer, Eric Gordon. With Chris Paul missing so much time, the league’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year has started nine of 11 games – topping the 20-point mark in eight of them.

Key: Changing of the Guard

While Chris Paul continues to rehab his sore left knee, the Rockets have gone with a backcourt of James Harden and Eric Gordon – neither a pure point guard.

On Thursday night, neither team will have that luxury – as Derrick Rose will miss the Rockets matchup after feeling some soreness in the left ankle he injured in the second game of the season against Milwaukee.

Rose had notched double-figures in every game he’s appeared in this season, but he’s slowed down in the last couple – averaging 10.0 points per but shooting just a combined 8-for-22 from the floor. On Thursday, Iman Shumpert will get the starting nod in his place.

Shump returned from a four-game layoff with a sore knee, but bounced back nicely in Tuesday’s win over the Bucks – finishing with six points on 3-for-3 shooting to go with five boards.

James Harden, who won his second Western Conference Player of the Week award on Wednesday, operates as the team’s point guard without Paul, and was last year’s assist leader and is among the league leaders again – averaging 9.6 dimes per, having handed out double-digit assists in five games so far this season.

Key: Love Broker

As badly as the Cavaliers as a team needed to bounce back from Sunday’s embarrassing loss to Atlanta at The Q, it was just as satisfying to see Kevin Love get his early season back on track after a tough second half in Washington and an outing against the Hawks that ended with a trip to the hospital.

On Tuesday night, Love tallied his team-leading eighth double-double (3rd in the NBA) – notching a season-high 32 points, going 9-for-14 from the floor and 14-of-16 from the stripe, leading both squads with 16 boards, half of those off the offensive glass. It was the 29th time in his career that Love tallied at least 30 points and 15 boards and in 22 meetings with the Rockets, he’s averaged 19.3 points and 11.1 boards.

With Tristan Thompson still nursing a sore left calf, Love will primarily square off against Clint Capela, who came into the league as a defensive specialist and has continued to improve on the offensive end each year – averaging 12.7 points to go along with his 1.6 swats per contest.

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