Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers vs. Spurs

Mark Sobhani/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Key: Sunday with the Spurs

For a minute there on Friday, it looked like it might be another rough night at the office in Memphis. But the Wine & Gold hit the gas defensively and simply wore down the reeling Grizzlies over the final three quarters, giving them some momentum heading into Sunday’s marquee matinee at The Q.

The Cavaliers, who’ve had new life breathed into them just before the All-Star Break have won five of their last six – including four straight on the road – and return to The Q for a season-long five-game homestand, beginning with Sunday afternoon’s showdown with the Spurs.

On Friday night, Cleveland got back into the win column, holding the Grizzlies to 40 points on 31 percent shooting in the second half, sending Memphis to its eighth-straight defeat.

The Spurs are headed in a decidedly different direction, despite still clinging to the third seed in the Western Conference Playoff picture. They come to Cleveland for the final game of a brutal six-game trip that’s seen them drop four straight, including six of their last seven.

Gregg Popovich’s squad dropped the Cavaliers by a dozen points back on January 23 in San Antonio, but things have changed dramatically on Cleveland’s end since then. A tough test against NBA royalty will tell them exactly how much.

Key: Mr. February

Naturally, the face of the Cavaliers’ midseason turnaround is LeBron James, who’s been named the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Month in each of the last six seasons and looks completely locked in for No. 7 with two games to go.

Through the first eight games of the month – not including his dynamic performance in last Sunday’s All-Star Game – the King is averaging a triple-double: 25.8 points on 55 percent shooting, including 41 percent from deep, to go with 10.0 boards and 10.6 assist.

On Friday night in Memphis, he followed suit – tallying his 11th triple-double of the year and 66th of his Hall of Fame career, finishing with 18 points, 14 boards and 11 assists. James, who went for 28, 9 and 7 in the January 23 loss – needs just two more trifectas to tie his career-best, racking up 13 last season.

This is normally where we talk about the heavyweight matchup between Numeral 23 and arguably the league’s best two-way player, Kawhi Leonard. But last week, Gregg Popovich wondered whether San Antonio’s quiet superstar would return at all this season.

In his place on Sunday afternoon, however, the Spurs will go with a combination of fourth-year swingman, Kyle “Slo-Mo” Anderson – who doubled-up with 10 points and 12 boards in their January 23 win – and 12-year veteran, Rudy Gay.

Key: Middle Management

Gregg Popovich is proving once again why he’s considered one of the all-time greats, leading the Spurs to the front half of the Playoff picture in the uber-competitive West despite missing their former MVP.

Without Leonard in the lineup for most of the season, much of the heavy-lifting had fallen on the shoulders of LaMarcus Aldridge, the 12th-year big man from Texas. The six-time All-Star is having his best season since signing with the Spurs three seasons ago – averaging 22.7 ppg and 8.3 rpg so far this season.

Popovich has been buying Aldridge some rest on the Spurs’ prolonged roadie, but the former Longhorn suited up on Friday night in Denver and dropped 38 points on the Nuggets, going 13-for-23 from the floor and 12-of-14 from the stripe.

If Aldridge doesn’t give it a go on Sunday, they’ll turn to Latvian big man, Davis Bertans, who’s having a solid sophomore season with the Spurs, and of course, future Hall of Famer, Pau Gasol.

Whoever starts at center will lock up with Cleveland’s successful one-two punch of Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. After a 12-point, nine-board effort the previous night against Washington, Thompson struggled early against Marc Gasol and the Grizzlies.

Nance picked up the slack – posting an outstanding overall performance, finishing with 15 points, on 6-of-11 shooting, adding eight boards, two assists, a game-high four steals and two blocks despite battling first-half foul trouble.

Key: Settling In

The Cavaliers newcomers might have been just a little too geeked up for their first home contest on Thursday night at The Q. After all, it was the first game back after the All-Star Break with their new squad riding a four-game heater.

Whether that was the case or not, they sure settled back in nicely on Friday night in Memphis – with each of the newly-acquired quartet pitching in for the win.

Nance was excellent on both ends His former Lakers teammate, Jordan Clarkson, bounced back from a taking halftime stitches under his left eye to post a fantastic second half – scoring 12 of his 14 points, going 6-for-13 from the floor, including 2-of-6 from deep, adding four boards and a pair of assists.

Rodney Hood chipped in with 10 points, going 2-of-5 from long-range, adding three boards, two assists and a steal. And George Hill had his best start as a Cavalier, tying for the team-lead with 18 points, going 5-for-11 from the floor and 7-of-8 from the stripe, adding two boards and leading Cleveland with a pair of blocks.

Jeff Green had a solid return to Memphis, finishing with six points and four boards and Kyle Korver bounced back from a rough shooting night on Thursday to go 2-for-3 from deep in Friday night’s win.

Key: Two-Way Work

Through the first half of the season, the Cavaliers proved that they’d have no problem scoring points – even with Isaiah Thomas on the shelf and Kyrie Irving in Beantown. But defensively, they were ranked near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency – a flaw that was exacerbated during their dismal January skein.

But since making a trio of Deadline deals before the break, the Wine & Gold have turned up the heat defensively.

The new-look Cavaliers put on a defensive clinic over the last three quarters in Memphis on Friday night – holding the Grizzlies to 37 percent shooting from the floor on the night and 89 points overall, their second-lowest total this season, adding a season-high 13 steals in the win. Over the last six games, Tyronn Lue’s squad has held four opponents under 45 percent shooting from the floor.

And during that six-game span, they haven’t taken their foot off the accelerator offensively either – averaging 119.8 points, 26.0 assists and 18.8 fast break points per contest – shooting .522 from the floor and .422 from three-point range over that stretch.

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