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Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers at Rockets

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele
Cavs.com Beat Writer

Key: Prepared for Launch

The good news heading into tonight’s matchup in Houston is that the Cavaliers have already knocked off the Rockets once this season. The bad news is that the Wine & Gold are riding an 11-game losing streak, the Rockets have come through the toughest part of their schedule with a 12-3 record and the Toyota Center has been one of the toughest places for Cleveland to play in any era of Cavaliers basketball.

After dropping each of the four games on their recent homestand, the Wine & Gold hit the road for their longest trip of the season – beginning with a hard-fought loss on Wednesday night in the Big Easy.

The Cavaliers got off to a scorching start – drilling their first eight three-point attempts and shooting 73 percent in the first period. But Anthony Davis – who finished with a 38-point, 13-rebound effort – and the Pelicans took over from there, pulling even in the second quarter and scoring 81 points in the second stanza to prolong Cleveland’s mid-season agony.

The Rockets are coming off a home loss to the Bucks on Wednesday night and have dropped two of three, but they’ve been red-hot overall – riding another prolific season by the league’s reigning MVP.

In the first meeting of the season back on November 24, the Cavs got big performances from Tristan Thompson and Collin Sexton and survived a monster night by James Harden to earn the victory.

Key: Rocket Man

The Rockets got off to a sluggish start to the season – going 11-14 through their first 25 games and sitting in the cellar of the Southwest Division.

Then, James Harden put the squad on his back – and they’ve been riding high ever since.

To say the Beard’s been on a tear is an understatement – notching at least 30 points in each of the past 13 games, the longest such streak since Tracy McGrady did so over a 14-game span in 2003. The reigning MVP has also drilled at least five three-pointers in each of his last 10 outings – a streak three games longer than any player in NBA history.

The Wine & Gold haven’t been exempt to Harden’s dominance over the years; he’s posted five 30-point contests against the Cavs and has gone for 40 twice – including Cleveland’s November 24 win at The Q, finishing with an even 40 to go with game-highs in assists (13) and turnovers (nine).

The Wine & Gold won’t have David Nwaba to pester the 10-year vet, and though they’ll probably try to slow him down by committee, Alec Burks will probably draw that unenviable assignment.

Burks has been rock-solid of late – averaging 14.9 points over his last seven games, netting at least 17 points in five of those contests.

Key: Middle Management

Five games after returning from a foot injury, Tristan Thompson is still trying to find the rhythm he had before being sidelined.

He’s still been Cleveland’s rock in the middle since his return, scoring in double-figures in three of those games, grabbing double-digit boards in four.

Like most big men trying to keep up with Anthony Davis, Thompson struggled on both ends on Wednesday night in New Orleans, finishing with six points on 2-of-9 shooting to go with a team-high 10 rebounds.

Thompson – who’s three blocks away from passing Brad Daugherty and Anderson Varejao for seventh on the franchise’s all-time list – was outstanding in the late-November meeting with the Rockets – going off for 16 points and a season-high 20 boards, grabbing nine of those off the offensive glass.

Thompson got the better of Clint Capela that night and will look for a repeat performance on Friday in H-town.

Capela, who’s improved in each of his five seasons with Houston, has already notched 14 games with 20-point scoring efforts after doing so just 12 times all of last year. At 12.9 rpg, Capela is the Western Conference’s third-leading rebounder and his 1.88 bpg make him the fourth-best shot-blocker.

If the shorthanded Cavaliers are looking to sweep the high-octane Rockets, this is a matchup they’ll have to win.

Key: Guard Duty

With Chris Paul out until the end of January with a hamstring ailment, the Cavaliers will dodge that bullet for the second time this season.

Eric Gordon – who started for Paul and went off for 28 points in the first meeting with Cleveland – is nursing a sore knee, has missed five straight games and likely won’t be ready for Friday’s matchup.

That job then falls to Austin Rivers, who’s started the last five games for Houston – notching double-figures in four of them, including a 21-point showing last Thursday night in a loss to Portland.

Collin Sexton tied the best scoring performance of his young career in the first meeting against Houston – finishing with a team-high 29 points, going 14-of-21 from the floor, adding four boards and a pair of assists.

The only Cavalier to play in all 42 games this season, Sexton has tallied double-figure scoring in 35 of them (good for third-best among rookies) and is tops among his class from the stripe – connecting at an .879 clip. The Young Bull was perfect from the line in Cleveland’s recent loss in New Orleans, drilling all eight attempts, but he struggled mightily from the floor, going 2-of-12 for 13 points.

With Paul (and possibly Gordon) still on the shelf, the Wine & Gold would love to see a repeat performance by their young gun on Friday night.

Key: Bench Mob

As good as the Wine & Gold’s second unit has been this season, that group was almost unstoppable on Wednesday night in New Orleans – combining for 75 points, fourth-most in franchise history and most since 2002, with four players notching double-digits.

So far this year, the Cavs bench – which averages 43.9 ppg, fourth-best in the NBA – has gone for 40-plus points in 25 games, 50-plus in 13 more and 60-plus twice before eclipsing those numbers on Wednesday.

In that contest, Jordan Clarkson led the way – finishing with 21 points on 9-for-16 shooting, adding four boards to go with team-highs in steals (three) and blocked shots (three).

Matthew Dellavedova tallied 10 of his 17 points in the first period, going 6-of-8 from the floor, including 3-of-5 from long-distance to go with a team-high seven assists.

Cameron Payne got in on the act – finishing with 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the floor, including 3-of-5 from deep.

The fourth reserve to register double-figures was Ante Zizic, who finished with 10 points and four boards in 20 minutes of work. With Larry Nance Jr. sidelined for the next 2-4 weeks with a right knee MCL sprain, Big Z will be asked to do more of the same for the foreseeable future.

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