Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers vs. Thunder

David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Key: Rolling Thunder

The Cavaliers are a team that has the luxury of having “bad” wins – if there is such a thing in the NBA – coming off a narrow victory over the spiraling Magic after nearly blowing a 23-point lead.

Regardless, when the season is over, it’ll register as a win and, more importantly, it snaps a four-game skid with a second straight Western Conference heavyweight coming to Cleveland.

The Cavs have history on their side, going 4-1 over their last five matchups with OKC, including a lopsided 16-point win right around this time last season at The Q. Cleveland has dropped the Thunder in their last three visits to The Q and is 9-2 against the franchise dating back to 2005-06. But history won’t care about those numbers if the Wine & Gold don’t find their rhythm against the new-look Thunder.

Billy Donovan’s top-heavy squad has been up and down all season. After winning eight of nine in December, they’ve been streaky in January – losing two, winning two, losing three, winning three – a streak they’re currently riding when they roll into The Q on Saturday afternoon.

The Cavaliers would love a signature win to wrap up the three-game homestand (and before traveling to San Antonio on Tuesday). The Thunder want to spoil a potentially historic afternoon at The Q and stay in the Western Conference mix before the Break.

Key: Exclusive Company

Leave it to the King to pick a nationally-televised weekend matinee against the reigning MVP and one of his closest friends in the league to potentially reach an historic landmark on Saturday.

LeBron James needs just 25 points to reach the 30,000-point plateau – entering some rarified air that includes only one other active player. James was 19 years old when he notched his 1,000th point; 23 when he reached 10,000; 28 when he reached 20,000 – and now, here he sits: 33 years and 21 days old and ready to join an elite group that already includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Dirk Nowitzki.

(USA Today’s excellent NBA beat writer, Jeff Zilgitt, estimated that James would need to average 21.6 ppg playing 70 games per in five seasons to pass Kareem [38,387] as the league’s all-time top scorer.)

Recently named to his 14th consecutive All-Star start – and the team’s captain as the East’s top vote-getter – LeBron has also posted some big numbers against this afternoon’s foe – averaging 28.9 points (his 3rd-highest mark against any foe).

If he hits his average on Saturday, they’ll be stopping the action to salute his greatness at The Q.

Key: Point of Contention

LeBron is right in the mix – if not in the forefront – of this season’s early MVP discussion. And to win it, he’ll have to dethrone the starting point guard for Saturday afternoon’s opponent, the mercurial Russell Westbrook.

Like James, the former UCLA standout (and Kevin Love’s roomie on the road) seems to rewrite the history books on an almost-nightly pace. He finished the calendar year with 38 triple-doubles, topping Oscar Robertson’s mark of 34 in 1961. In late December, he surpassed Kevin Durant as the top scorer in Thunder franchise history. Last year, Westbrook led the Association in scoring (31.6 ppg) and this season he’s the current assists leader (9.9 apg) – trying to become the first player in NBA history to lead the league in those categories in consecutive seasons.

Westbrook notched triple-doubles in each of his last two meetings with the Cavaliers – including a 29-point, 12-rebound, 11-assist, four-seal performance in OKC’s nine-point win over Cleveland last February.

Tyronn Lue will throw every imaginable look at the reigning MVP, but Isaiah Thomas will be listed as the opposing point guard. Thomas is coming off his first 20-point game as a Cavalier – netting 21 in Thursday’s nail-biter over Orlando, canning the game-winning free throws with 11.2 to play.

Derrick Rose will make his second appearance off the bench after returning to the lineup for the first time since November 7 – finishing with nine points and three boards in 13 minutes of work.

Key: Summer Lovin'

If LeBron is able to reach the 30,000-point on Saturday afternoon, he’ll have one of his closest friends, Carmelo Anthony, on-hand to witness it.

Of course, Anthony will also be doing his best to make sure LeBron doesn’t see any kind of tribute while he and his squad are in town.

The former Syracuse star hasn’t posted the numbers his Cleveland counterpart has since being selected by Denver in the historic 2003 Draft, but he does come into Saturday’s contest as one of just six players in league history (along with LeBron) to amass 24,000 points, 6,000 rebounds, 2,500 assists, 1,000 steals and 1,000 three-point field goals.

Playing alongside a pair of superstars, Anthony’s numbers, naturally, have taken a slight dip – but he’s still a lethal scoring threat on any given night, coming off a pair of 20-point outings, including Wednesday night’s win over the Lakers, going off for 27 points on 10-for-15 shooting.

OKC’s “other” big addition this offseason, Paul George, has been very good through his first 44 games with the Thunder. But, like Anthony, he’s had to adjust to his new role as one-third of a Big Three – seeing his offensive numbers drop almost across the board.

And, like Anthony, he’s a major offensive weapon – posting five 30-point games and a 42-point outburst against the Clippers already this season.

Key: Middle Management

The Thunder’s Big Three garner all the headlines, but their rugged big man, Steven Adams, is almost as critical to the squad’s success – especially with OKC thinner in the middle this year following the offseason departures of Enes Kanter and Domantas Sabonis.

Adams is the squad’s fourth-leading scorer (13.6 ppg) and second-leading rebounder (8.8 rpg) – improving his numbers across the board in his fifth season out of Pitt. As the Thunder roll into Cleveland on a three-game heater, Adams – who ranks 3rd in the NBA in FG percentage (.628) – has notched double-doubles in all three, including a 21-point, 10-rebound effort in OKC’s recent thumping of the Lakers.

He’ll line up against Kevin Love, who’s coming off his 24th double-double of the season – finishing with 12 points and team-high 11 boards in Thursday’s win over Orlando.

Cleveland’s four-time All-Star has notched a double-double in 13 of his last 15 meetings against the Thunder – averaging 22.7 points and 13.4 boards over that stretch.

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