Keys to the Game
Five Keys: Cavaliers at Thunder
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Key: Road Warriors
On Sunday afternoon in Boston, the Cavaliers showed that they were a completely different team. On Tuesday night, they can put an exclamation point on their Deadline move differences as they try to avenge one of the worst losses of the season – taking on Russell Westbrook and the Thunder in Oklahoma City to wrap up the season’s unofficial first half.
In Sunday’s win, after a tight first quarter, the Wine & Gold proceeded to dismantle the top defensive team in the East – outscoring Boston, 90-67, over the final three periods to win their third straight and second on three-game roadie leading into the second half.
The Thunder were in the midst of an eight-game win streak when they visited Cleveland in late January, but they’ve cooled off considerably since then – dropping five of seven despite one of those wins coming in a nationally-televised road blowout of the World Champs.
The Thunder dropped 148 points on a flat Cavaliers team back in that January drubbing at The Q, but the Wine & Gold look a revitalized squad right now – and they’re eager to prove as much on Tuesday night in OKC.
Key: Out With the Old, In With the New
It didn’t take long for Cleveland’s recent acquisitions to make a strong impression – with all four new guys contributing to varying degrees in Sunday’s blowout win in Boston.
Ten-year veteran George Hill stepped right into the starting lineup and was efficient on both ends of the floor – netting 12 points on 3-for-8 shooting, getting Cleveland off to a strong start with five quick points to start the second half and helping to hold Kyrie Irving to a quiet 18 points.
Jordan Clarkson, the league’s second-leading bench scorer, was even better – finishing with 18 points, going 7-of-11 from the floor, including 3-of-4 from long-distance.
Rodney Hood canned three triples of his own off the bench and was 6-of-11 from the floor overall.
Larry Nance Jr. didn’t put up big numbers – pitching in with five points, four boards, three assists and a steal. But Nance could be a huge factor on Tuesday night, helping Tristan Thompson try to contain Steven Adams, who dominated the Cavaliers in that January 20 loss at The Q – going 12-of-13 from the floor, finishing with 25 points and 10 boards in just under 30 minutes of work.
In terms of monster numbers, there’s very few players who can stuff the stat sheet like Russell Westbrook.
In the previous matchup in Cleveland, the league’s reigning MVP handed out 20 assists (to go with 23 points, nine boards and a pair of steals). Westbrook finished the 2017 calendar year with 38 triple-doubles (besting Oscar Robertson’s record of 34) – and he’s closing in on Jason Kidd for third on the NBA’s all-time list.
Earlier this season, the seven-time All-Star (and Kevin Love’s road roommate back at UCLA) surpassed Kevin Durant as the leading scorer in Thunder franchise history.
An underrated aspect to Westbrook’s game has been his durability – missing just three games in the previous two seasons. But an ankle injury has kept him out of OKC’s last two contests and although he and Carmelo Anthony did some non-contact work on Monday, it’s still unsure whether they’ll give it a go on Tuesday.
If the former Bruin is able to suit up – he’ll get a different look than his last meeting with Cleveland, taking on George Hill and, at times, Cedi Osman – who’s been very good in his first two career starts with Cleveland, notching 16 points, six boards, five assists and three steals in Atlanta and a dozen points and five boards in Sunday’s beatdown in Beantown.
Key: Extended Reign
Just as the entire Cavaliers team looks re-energized following Thursday’s series of trades, so does their unquestioned leader.
Actually, LeBron James got a head start on Cleveland’s dramatic turnaround – going off for 37 points and the game-winner in overtime in the Cavs’ final home game of the first half against Minnesota and carrying those good vibes right through the weekend.
On Friday night, the four-time MVP tallied a career-high 19 assists while posting his second-straight triple-double in Cleveland’s win over Atlanta and then proceeded to lead both squads in scoring on Sunday afternoon in Boston, notching 24 points, 10 assists and eight boards against the team he loves to hate on Sunday afternoon.
In his final regular season contest before suiting up for his 14th straight All-Star Game on Sunday night in L.A., James will face off against a pair of frenemies in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony (if Anthony’s ankle injury allows it).
George – the five-time All-Star from Fresno State – comes into the contest as the league’s steals leader and is looking to become just the fourth player in NBA history to average at least 20 points and two steals per game while shooting better than 42 percent from beyond the arc.
George brutalized the Cavs in OKC’s win in Cleveland this season – leading both squads with 36 points, going 12-of-19 from the floor, including 5-of-11 from long-distance.
Key: Veteran's Maximum
As much as we want to give the lion’s share of the credit for Cleveland’s turnaround to the infusion of youth acquired at the Trade Deadline, there’s a couple Cavaliers incumbents who’ve been just as vital.
After an uneven first couple months of the season, J.R. Smith has been very good over the past few weeks. Dating back to Cleveland’s home win over Indiana on January 26, Swish is averaging 12.7 points over his last nine games – shooting an even 50 percent from the floor and nearly 48 percent from beyond the arc. He’s been even more efficient over his last four outings – shooting .606 from the floor (20-of-33) and .583 from beyond the arc (14-of-24). In Sunday’s win over the Celtics, Smith missed just a single shot – going 6-of-7 from the floor, 3-of-4 from deep.
Tristan Thompson had a quiet afternoon in Boston, but he notched double-figures in each of his previous three starts – doubling-up with 10 points and 11 boards to follow up his 17-point effort in last Wednesday’s thriller against Minnesota.
Jeff Green has simply been the model of consistency all season long – netting double-figures in each of his last four appearances off the bench, averaging 14.8 points on 56 percent shooting over that stretch.
Kyle Korver wasn’t asked to do much on Sunday in Boston, but averaged 22.0 points on 61 percent shooting – including an 11-for-19 mark from long-distance – bolstered by his 30-point outburst on Friday night in Atlanta.