Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers at Warriors - Game 1

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele
Cavs.com Beat Writer

Key: The Finals Go Fourth

Last season, the Cavaliers and Warriors met in their third-straight NBA Finals after steamrolling through their respective Conferences, going a combined 24-1 along the way. This year, at least on the Cavaliers’ side, they’ve gone through the gauntlet to get back.

After falling to the Warriors in five games last June, the Wine & Gold have undergone two separate facelifts – dealing Kyrie Irving over the summer and then dealing half of those assets at the Trade Deadline. In fact, these Cavaliers barely resemble the squad that Golden State faced in either last year’s Finals or the team from their MLK Day win at The Q in which Jae Crowder was the starting small forward, Isaiah Thomas was the starting point guard and Dwyane Wade led Cleveland’s bench in scoring.

Cleveland came into the 2018 postseason as the East’s fourth-seed and have had to claw their way through the Conference, fighting through a pair of brutal seven-game sets against the Pacers and Celtics along the way.

LeBron James has already turned in a postseason for the ages, posting seven 40-point games – including three against Boston, willing the Wine & Gold to his eighth-straight Finals appearance.

The Warriors didn’t exactly cruise to the Finals this season either – having to fight their way past the Spurs, Pelicans and finally, a seven-game showdown with the top-seeded Rockets, who missed 27 straight three-pointers in Game 7 to allow the World Champs a chance to defend their title.

The Cavaliers – who dropped both regular season meetings to the Warriors this season – come into the series as prohibitive underdogs, but that’s a role that they’ll use to fuel themselves over the next two weeks.

Key: Eight Straight

LeBron James missed the Playoffs in his first two seasons as a pro. Since then, the four-time MVP has cut a swath of destruction through the Eastern Conference, wrecking one opposing franchise after another along the way.

The Pacers, Raptors and Celtics all felt the familiar sting of being ousted by the King this past spring – as James has hit an entirely new gear after 82 games of excellence in the regular season.

LeBron – who needs just one more 30-point game to tie Michael Jordan with the most in league history (109) – will become just the sixth player (and first non-Bill-Russell-era-Celtic) to reach eight consecutive Finals.

Along his 18-game route to the 2018 Finals, Numeral 23 is averaging an NBA-best 34.0 points per, having posted 13 double-doubles, and adding 9.2 boards and 8.8 assists. With the Cavaliers trailing the Celtics in the ECF, 3-2, all LeBron did over the next two games was average 40.5 points, 13.0 boards and 9.0 assists – playing 94 of the 96 possible minutes, including all 48 in the deciding Game 7.

LeBron will see several different matchups during the series, but on paper he’ll start out against fellow All-NBA First Team selection and reigning Finals MVP, Kevin Durant – who’s coming off a 34-point performance in Game 7 against Houston.

Durant – who’s fifth all-time in Playoff scoring, one spot behind LeBron – topped the 30-point plateau in all five games of last year’s Finals, averaging 35.2 points per, shooting 56 percent from the floor and 93 percent from the stripe as Golden State brought the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to the Bay.

There’s no reason not to believe these next few games won’t be another epic confrontation between two future Hall of Famers.

Key: Facing Forward

The Cavaliers dropped both meetings against Golden State this year, but they still got rock-solid performances from Kevin Love in both.

In the Christmas Day matchup, Cleveland’s five-time All-Star – getting the start at center – led everyone with 31 points on 9-for-25 shooting, including 6-for-11 from long-range and 7-of-7 from the stripe, adding a season-high 18 rebounds and a pair of steals in the loss. In the MLK Day meeting at The Q, Love finished with 17 points and seven boards, going 3-of-5 from long-range.

But after a nasty head-to-head collision with Jayson Tatum in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the 10-year vet was placed into the league’s concussion protocol – forcing him to miss Game 7 in Boston and putting his status for the Finals opener in jeopardy.

With Love out of the lineup for Game 7 against Boston, Jeff Green stepped up to post his best game of the Playoffs – finishing with 19 points on 7-for-14 shooting, adding eight boards and a block in the victory. Green, who was a rookie in Seattle with Kevin Durant, will factor large whether he gets his second-straight start for Love or comes off Cleveland’s bench.

And while there will be plenty of cross-matching both on Thursday night and throughout the series, Green and Love will see plenty of three-time All-Star and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Draymond Green.

The former Michigan State star averaged a triple-double against New Orleans in the Conference Semis (14.8ppg, 11.8rpg, 10apg) – becoming the first Warrior ever to do so – and Golden State remains undefeated all-time (26-0) when the mercurial forward notches a trifecta, including their win over Cleveland on Christmas Day.

Key: Shooter's Touch

In the previous three meetings between these two, we’d be discussing the matchup between two of the respective Conference’s top point guards.

But Kyrie Irving – who hit the biggest shot in franchise history against Golden State in Game 7 – was in street clothes for Boston last round and Isaiah Thomas, who started for Cleveland in the MLK Day meeting, finished his season with the Lakers back in April.

George Hill has never put up the numbers of his predecessors, but his production on both ends will be (and has been) critical to Cleveland’s postseason success.

The Wine & Gold were 7-1 this postseason when Hill topped double-figures and his late performance in Game 7 against Indiana might have salvaged Cleveland’s season. The nine-year vet from IUPUI has piled up 98 postseason contests over the course of his career, but Hill’s never been to this altitude. And now that he has, he’ll have to battle with arguably the greatest pure shooter the game’s ever seen.

Stephen Curry, the former two-time MVP comes into Game 1 having hit a triple in 86 consecutive Playoff games and his 356 career three-pointers put him only behind Ray Allen (385) and LeBron James (361).

Curry went off for 14 of his 27 points in the third quarter of Golden State’s Game 7 win over Houston, going 4-of-5 from long-range in the period, 7-for-15 on the night.

The five-time All-Star, who missed the Christmas Day game against Cleveland, 16 of the Warriors’ final 17 regular season games and the first six games of the postseason, went for 23 points on 8-for-15 shooting, including 4-of-8 from beyond the arc, in his lone matchup against the Cavaliers this season.

Key: Bench Trial

The Cavaliers don’t have four All-Stars in their starting lineup like the Warriors, but they do have some veteran depth that they can count on if they hope to pull off the upset.

Depending on Kevin Love’s status, Jeff Green will eventually rejoin a second unit that finished seventh in scoring in the NBA this past season. Green’s versatility on the defensive end will be critical against the Warriors – who go small as well as any team in the league.

Larry Nance Jr. could also be a critical piece of Cleveland’s defense, especially if Love is limited. Although he struggled in Game 7 against Boston, Nance had a solid series – going 12-for-14 from the floor over the seven-game set, 32-of-42 over the course of the Playoffs.

Kyle Korver had a rough series in his first trip to the Finals last season – going just 5-of-16 from long-range in the five-game loss. In the 2018 postseason, Korver has tallied double-figures in exactly half of Cleveland’s 18 outings and has hit four or more triples in seven of those contests.

Jordan Clarkson hasn’t been able to find his rhythm yet in these Playoffs, notching double-figures just twice while shooting 31 percent from the floor, but the fourth-year man has the potential to heat up at any time.

The Warriors rely primarily on a group of veterans – including Andre Iguodala, Nick Young, Shaun Livingston, David West and JaVale McGee – and rookie Jordan Bell off their bench.

Iguodala is officially out for Game 1, but Livingston and Young have been in a good rhythm throughout the postseason heading into the 2018 Finals.

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