Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers at Timberwolves

Glenn James/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Key: Hungry Like the Wolves

After finally snapping their road skid at five games in Orlando, the Wine & Gold’s road trip rolls on – taking them up to the Twin Cities for a Monday night matchup with Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves.

After scoring just 88 points – a season-low – in their loss to Boston last Wednesday night, the Cavaliers took it out on the Magic, notching a season-high 131 in their victory over Orlando. Cleveland nearly squandered a 24-point second-half lead before holding off a fourth-quarter rally for the win.

After falling last Friday night in Boston, the Timberwolves smushed New Orleans on Saturday to tip off a five-game homestand.

Since LeBron’s return, the Wine & Gold haven’t lost to Minnesota, bringing a 6-0 mark since 2014-15 into tonight’s matchup. In those six wins, the Cavs have topped the T-Wolves by an average of 17.7 points, handing out 26.2 assists and shooting 52 percent from the floor over that stretch.

Minnesota is a different squad these days, and the Cavaliers will have their hands full as they try to right the roadie on Monday night.

Key: Little Big Man

Isaiah Thomas knew that there’d be moments of both brilliance and rust as he returned to the lineup last week at The Q.

There was more of the former than the latter in his debut against Portland and, in his first start of the season against Orlando, the undersized superstar looked even more like the I.T. of old – finishing with 19 points on 7-for-13 shooting, including 2-of-4 from beyond the arc, to go with four assists in 21 minutes of work.

With his two bombs in Orlando, Thomas has now canned at least one three-pointer in 59 consecutive contests – the second-longest active streak in the NBA (behind only Klay Thompson, 94).

It’s no coincidence that the Cavaliers have posted two of their top three scoring games of the season since Thomas has returned – including Saturday’s season-high 131-point performance.

The Wolves will go with Tyus Thomas – taking over for the injured Jeff Teague – to try to slow Thomas down. Thomas isn’t the two-way guy talent that Teague is, but the Wolves have held their last their last five opponents under 100 points since he’s been in the lineup.

Something’s gotta give on Monday night in Minnesota.

Key: Big Electric KAT

The recent reversal of the Timberwolves’ fortunes can be directly traced to the 2015 Draft, when they tabbed Karl-Anthony Towns with the first overall pick. They’ve built around their prized big man in the years since, and Minnesota is now primed for a Playoff run after a 13-year drought.

After winning Rookie of the Year honors following his first season, Towns started all 82 games last year and is having an All-Star caliber campaign again in 2017-18. His offensive numbers have taken a slight dip with the influx of talent to Minnesota, but he’s still a double-double machine – coming off a 21-point, 16-rebound effort against the Pelicans and posting the second 20-20 performance of his career in the previous game against Boston, tallying 25 points and 23 boards in the loss.

He’ll take on a familiar face around these parts as Kevin Love makes his return to the Twin Cities – where he spent his first six seasons.

Love’s coming off a strong outing in Orlando – bouncing back from a tough one in Boston – finishing with 27 points, going 6-of-12 from long-range to go with five boards in just 28 minutes of work. Since November 28, the four-time All-Star is shooting .466 from beyond the arc (61-of-131) – averaging 22.2 points and 9.6 rebounds over that span.

Love’s held his own against some of the league’s leading big men; he’ll get another true test on Monday night at the Target Center.

Key: Extended Reign

On Saturday night in Orlando, LeBron James continued his turn- back-the-clock tour – and a run towards his fifth MVP nod – finishing one assist shy of his eighth triple-double of the season, tallying a game-high 33 points on 12-for-23 shooting, including 4-of-7 from long-distance, to go with 10 boards, nine dimes and a season-best six steals in his 1,100th regular season game as a pro.

James, who’s shooting 39 percent from long-range – the second-best mark of his career – also passed Tim Hardaway (1.543) for 23rd place on the NBA’s all-time three-pointers made list.

The King rolling into Minnesota on a heater is bad news for the Timberwolves – a team he’s feasted on of late, shooting a combined .744 from the floor while averaging 25.7 points, 11.7 assists and 6.7 boards over his last three meetings with Minnesota.

The T-Wolves will primarily counter with Taj Gibson – who’s never been known as an offensive juggernaut but has sure looked like it recently against Cleveland. In Gibson’s last two meetings with the Wine & Gold, he’s averaging 20.5 points and 9.0 boards, shooting an eye-popping .826 (19-of-23) from the floor in those contests – both victories.

Key: The Butler Did It

The selection of Karl-Anthony Towns might have put Minnesota back on the basketball map, but the offseason acquisition of Jimmy Butler might finally put a Timberwolves team – one that hasn’t finished among the West’s top ten teams in more than a decade – over the top and back into the postseason.

The former Marquette star has been everything Tom Thibodeau has hoped for – notching double-figures in every game but two this season while tallying seven outings of 30-plus points already.

One of the Association’s top two-way players, Butler leads the T-Wolves in scoring (21.5 ppg), is second in assists (5.0) and third in rebounding (5.3). The seventh-year pro has also had some strong nights against the Wine & Gold dating back to his Chicago days – netting at least 20 points in seven of his last nine meetings against Cleveland.

J.R. Smith – who’s notched double-figures in each of his last two outings and in three of the last five – will get the start against Butler. Swish didn’t face the Timberwolves in either meeting last season, but his last trip to the Target Center was a memorable one – finishing with 27 points, going 5-of-6 from long-range, 10-of-12 from the floor overall in Cleveland’s 26-point victory.

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