Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers at Spurs

Darren Carroll/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Key: Texas Twister

San Antonio is not the ideal stop for a squad desperately in need of a victory. But that’s where the Wine & Gold find themselves as January comes to a close.

The Cavaliers are officially in a mid-season funk after surrendering 148 points to the Thunder on Saturday afternoon, tying a franchise record for defensive futility.

The loss was the Cavs’ 10th in their 14 games and, making matters worse, the third time in the last five defeats that they’ve fallen by 20-plus points.

The Spurs haven’t exactly been themselves so far this season – but that’s mostly due to the absence of Kawhi Leonard, who’s been limited to just nine games with a lingering quad injury. Despite being tied for the third-best record in the Western Conference, the Spurs have been up and down of late – failing to win two straight in January and coming into Tuesday’s matchup having dropped four of their last six.

The Spurs dropped Cleveland in both meetings last year – beating the Cavs in overtime at The Q and smushing them by 29 points in south Texas.

Both teams are vastly different one year later, and both come into tonight’s contest needing a win.

Key: Broken Record

Saturday was supposed to be the day that LeBron James made history – in front of the home fans on national TV against his close friend, Carmelo Anthony, and the high-octane Thunder. Things definitely didn’t work out that way, so the King will have to settle for a subdued celebration in San Antonio.

James now sits only seven points away from joining the elite 30,000-point club. That group will contain only seven members upon Numeral 23’s arrival – and he’ll be the fourth-fastest to reach the 30K mark – doing so in 1,105 career contests.

But as the four-time MVP – who can also move into 22nd place on the NBA’s all-time three-pointers made list – has maintained over the past few days, individual records are incidental to how he and the Cavaliers are playing right now.

And although James currently leads the Association in field goals made this season (463), he hasn’t been himself during the course of Cleveland’s recent funk – failing to top the 20-point mark three times over the squad’s last eight games, including 16- and 18-point performances over the Cavs’ last two.

He could be ready for an outburst on Tuesday night.

Key: They Love L.A.

Without Kawhi Leonard in the lineup for most of the 2017-18 season, the Spurs have had to rely heavily on LaMarcus Aldridge, the squad’s leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker through the first half of the campaign.

In his third season with the Spurs and 12th overall, the former Longhorn has led Gregg Popovich’s team in scoring in 36 of their first 46 games and in rebounds in 22 more. Aldridge has topped the 20-point mark in 31 games, the 30-point plateau seven times and went for 41 in a late-November win over the Grizzlies.

The Cavs have played Aldridge tough as a member of the Spurs; he doubled-up against Cleveland two years ago, but averaged just 10.5 points and 7.5 boards in two meetings last season.

The Cavaliers will throw a few different looks at Aldridge on Tuesday night. Jae Crowder – who’s notched double-figures in three of his last five outings, including a 17-point effort on Saturday – will probably start out on the five-time All-Star, with (four-time All-Star) Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson each getting their shot.

Love left Saturday’s game in the first quarter after coming down with some light-headedness. Thompson was solid in relief – finishing with nine points and a team-high seven boards.

Key: Proving Their Point

The Cavaliers are blessed with three very good veteran points guards on the roster – Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon. The problem so far has been finding the right combination and rotation now that they’re all healthy and ready to play.

Thomas has been rediscovering his rhythm on the offensive end, but that hasn’t translated into wins for the Wine & Gold, who’ve gone 2-4 with the two-time All-Star in the starting lineup. Despite the team’s struggles, Thomas has topped the 20-point mark in each of his last two outings and is averaging 21.3 ppg over his last three.

Rose returned to action last week after missing 32 games dating back to November 7 and he’s essentially picked up where the left off – averaging 10.5 points per over his first two games back after netting double-figures in every game he played before injuring his left ankle against Milwaukee.

After a strong run in the starting lineup, minutes have been few and far between for Calderon, who’s picked up just one start and a pair of DNP-CDs since Thomas (then Rose) returned to the rotation.

The Spurs will likely start their future Hall of Famer – Tony Parker – who’s numbers have taken a dip in his 17th season with San Antonio, although he’s coming off a nice performance in Sunday’s loss to Indiana.

Key: Deep Dive

With the Wine & Gold mired in a mid-season funk, it’s not unthinkable that Tyronn Lue will consider making changes to his rotation. But for the time being, the Wine & Gold’s second unit (as currently constituted) has been a constant in the Cavaliers’ ever-changing universe.

After combining for 57 points in Saturday’s lopsided loss at The Q, Cleveland’s bench currently ranks 4th in the NBA, averaging 41.1 ppg as a unit.

Pretty much on a nightly basis, the Cavaliers have been able to count on their three main veteran off the bench, each of whom rank among the NBA’s top 25 in scoring: Dwyane Wade (11.5 ppg, 12th among reserves), Jeff Green (11.0, 15th) and Kyle Korver (9.4 PPG, 25th).

On Saturday afternoon, Wade, Green and Rose all notched double-figures while Tristan Thompson led the squad in rebounding.

But with the team struggling, look for Cedi Osman – who hasn’t played more than four minutes over the last three games – to get a little longer run. Channing Frye would also love to see more floor time after piling up six DNP-CD’s dating back to mid-December. The Cavaliers’ success has been well-documented with the 12-year veteran in the rotation; Cleveland is 16-4 so far this season when Frye logs more than 10 minutes of action.

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