Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers at Warriors

Gregory Shamus/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Key: A Christmas Story

Before the schedule was released in August, there was one game in which both teams were certain of the date and opponent. And once again we find ourselves with a Finals rematch between the Cavaliers and Warriors highlighting a quintet of Christmas Day marquee matchups.

The last time these squads met at Oracle Arena, the Warriors were wrapping up their "gentleman’s sweep" of Cleveland, winning their second title in two seasons and taking the Larry O’Brien Trophy back from the Cavaliers.

The Warriors aren’t much different than the squad that we saw in June; the Cavaliers, on the other hand, have gone through a virtual overhaul since then.

Both teams come into the contest on a relative heater. Cleveland has won 19 of their last 21 dating back to November 11 – including a 115-112 win over the Bulls at The Q in the final home game before the current three-game trip.

The Warriors had won 10 straight before Saturday night’s clunker against Denver – going 3-for-27 from beyond the arc and failing to score more than 21 points in any quarter.

Steve Kerr’s squad won’t lay two eggs in a row and they’ll be eager to avenge last seasons’ Christmas Day loss at The Q. The Cavaliers will be just as eager to show off their newfound depth and maybe send a message that’ll reverberate in June.

Key: Holiday Reserves

If both teams weren’t loaded with superstars, they wouldn’t be headlining the Christmas Day docket. But the big difference between these two Conference champions heading into this contest is the composition of the Cavaliers – formerly a top-heavy squad relying on its “Big Three”; now a team that depends as much on its bench as its starters.

Cleveland’s bench is currently ranked 6th in the NBA, averaging 40.4 points per outing – almost 12 points more than last season’s group of reserves, nearly 16 more than LeBron’s first season back in Cleveland.

Leading that second unit is Christmas Day’s most successful player – Dwyane Wade – who’s won more games and has a better winning percentage than anyone in Association history on December 25th.

Wade, who’s tied with LeBron for third all-time in Christmas Day scoring (301 points) and assists (76), has gone 10-2 on Christmas Day, and comes into the contest off back-to-back double-digit performances against the Bucks and Bulls.

Kyle Korver, who struggled against Golden State in last seasons’ Finals, is coming off a strong showing against Chicago – netting nine of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, going 4-for-6 from deep and 5-of-7 from the floor overall in the win. Jeff Green has tallied double-figures in eight of his last 10 games, Tristan Thompson is rounding back into shape and Cedi Osman is starting to get meaningful minutes as the Wine & Gold’s bench continues to be the squad’s strong suit.

The Warriors have just as much weaponry or more off their bench. Andre Iguodala was the 2015 Finals MVP, Nick Young can score in bunches, JaVale McGee was a nightmare in last year’s Finals and David West is always a rugged presence in the post.

Key: Feats of Strength

Oh yeah, about those superstars.

The Warriors will be without their former MVP, Steph Curry, who’s missed the last eight games after injuring his ankle against the Pelicans. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, will be bringing their former MVP to the Christmas Day proceedings.

LeBron James comes into the contest tied with Dwyane Wade as the active leader in Christmas Day scoring and assists, is the all-time leader in three-pointers made (11) and is one of only five players in league history to register a triple-double on this day. It wouldn’t be a complete shock if James does so again in today’s contest – with the 13-time All-Star already notching six so far this season, including three straight over last weekend.

In 23 regular and postseason meetings with the Warriors since 2014-15, Numeral 23 is averaging 31.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.3 blocks against them.

James – who leads the NBA this season in fourth-quarter scoring – will lock horns with the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Draymond Green, who returned from a four-game absence with a right shoulder injury. LeBron will put that shoulder to the test immediately against Green – who’s consistently been a thorn in Cleveland’s side over the past few years.

In last year’s Christmas Day matchup, Green fouled out with 16 points, but bounced back to post a triple-double against the Cavs in their MLK Day rematch here at Oracle Arena.

Key: Facing Forward

While Draymond Green is busy trying to slow down LeBron James, Jae Crowder will be attempting the same feat against Kevin Durant.

Last year’s Finals MVP, Durant is having another spectacular campaign in 2017-18 – leading the high-powered Warriors in scoring for the second straight season. Previous to a subpar performance in the Dubs’ recent loss to Denver, Durant had been even better over the last two weeks – averaging 32.3 points and 9.6 rebounds over a seven-game stretch.

But Durant isn’t just an offensive threat this season. The former Longhorn also leads the best shot-blocking team in the NBA in swats – tallying 62 blocks this season, tops in the Western Conference.

Jae Crowder doesn’t put up numbers approaching Durant’s – and he’s struggled to find his offensive rhythm through his first 33 games with Cleveland – but he’ll give the former scoring champ all he can handle on the defensive end and save LeBron from having to check him all afternoon.

Crowder hasn’t put together many double-digit scoring performances this season – 14, to be exact – but the Wine & Gold flourish when he does: posting a 13-1 mark when the fifth-year pro scores more than 10 points.

Defensively, the Cavaliers will probably help out with a mix of Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and James, just to keep Durant on his heels on Monday.

Key: Stairway to Kevin

So far this season, Kevin Love has battled (and bested) some of the league’s best big men. But he won’t have to worry about matching up against a traditional center on Christmas Day.

That’s not a knock on either JaVale McGee or rookie, Jordan Bell, who’ve each had their moments so far this year. But against traditional bigs or not, Love has excelled – and he’s been even better of late.

Over his last six games, the four-time All-Star has canned at least four triples in five of them, including each of the last three. Over his last dozen outings, Love is shooting 48 percent (39-of-81) from long-range – averaging 23.2 points, shooting 51 percent from the floor overall and 83 percent from the stripe, to go with 10.3 boards and 2.1 assists per.

Love, who’s currently 5th in the NBA with 20 double-doubles, has had his ups and downs against Golden State over the years. In last year’s Christmas Day win, the 10-year vet doubled-up with 10 points and a game-high 18 boards. But in the following meeting at Oracle Arena, the Warriors took him completely out of the contest – holding Love to three points in 22 minutes of action.

Love has posted some monster games against the Dubs dating back to his Western Conference days with the T-Wolves. He’d love a blast from the past on Christmas Day in Oakland.