Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers vs. Timberwolves

Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Key: Home Cookin'

The old Cavaliers – the team that won three straight Eastern Conference titles and ran off 18 of 19 earlier this year – are in there somewhere. We spotted them in the first quarter last night in Orlando.

Yes, the squad that’s now gone 6-13 since Christmas took the floor after intermission. But the Wine & Gold have to know that it’s in there somewhere – and that they need to find it right quick.

On Tuesday night, the extended funk that’s enveloped the Wine & Gold sunk the squad even lower – surrendering a 21-point lead, allowing 70 points in the paint and scoring nine points in the final quarter against a shorthanded Magic squad that they’d manhandled in Orlando for the past three years.

The Cavaliers can look forward to the approaching All-Star Break to find some answers – but they’ll have to run a gauntlet to get there – facing the T-Wolves tonight and closing out the first half with road games in Atlanta, Boston and Oklahoma City.

The T-Wolves haven’t been great of late – dropping four of their last seven – but they stomped the Wine & Gold by 29 points one month ago and see a stammering Cavs squad ripe for the picking.

The Cavaliers have another chance to turn the tide, make a statement on national TV and make hay in their home gym. We’ll find out in a few hours if they can.

Key: Reign-Maker

If you simply look at LeBron James’ stat line from Tuesday’s loss, it’d look like another solid performance by the four-time MVP – doubling-up with 25 points, a game-high 10 boards and five assists. The six turnovers are problematic, but the King and Co. have overcome miscues in the past and still survived – especially in Orlando.

But those who watched the game saw something different – the fact that James scored only nine of those points, while tallying zero boards and zero assists after intermission. That’s simply not LeBron’s game, and those of us who’ve been watching him for the past decade-and-a-half – and Numeral 23 himself – can now tell that something is completely askew.

In many ways, the matchup with Minnesota back on January 8 precipitated part of this funk. In that embarrassing loss in Minneapolis, the Cavs trailed at one point by 41 points and James posted his lowest scoring total since returning to the Cavaliers in 2014-15 – a 10-point, eight-rebound, five-assist effort, positing a -39 mark in his 27 minutes of action.

If anyone can turn this thing around, it’s Cleveland’s 14-time All-Star, but he’ll have to rediscover his old self as we barrel towards the Break.

Key: Avenging Andrew

James will have his hands full on both ends of the floor on Wednesday night. As he tries to solve his and his team’s own offensive woes, he’ll have to contend with another former No. 1 overall pick who takes great pleasure in playing against the squad that traded him three offseasons ago.

Andrew Wiggins was tabbed with the top pick by Cleveland back in 2014 before being dealt to Minnesota for Kevin Love before ever playing a regular season game with the Cavs – and he’s been taking it out on the Wine & Gold ever since.

Only Kevin Durant (33.4 ppg) has a better scoring average against the team that drafted him – with Wiggins averaging 29.1 points per in seven meetings against Cleveland.

He’s only posted one victory among those seven outings, but the former Kansas star has nothing to apologize for – netting at least 20 points in all seven contests, including games of 33, 35 and 41 points.

Wiggins, whose durability is underrated (he’s missed just a single game through his first four seasons), has seen his offensive production slip a bit this season with the addition of Jimmy Butler and emergence of Karl-Anthony Towns. But he’s still one of the more dangerous young wings in the Association – and he’ll definitely be geared up against his former squad on Wednesday night.

Key: KAT Control

Kevin Love actually heard a smattering of boos the last time the Wine & Gold traveled to Minnesota and, like the rest of his squad, struggled in that lopsided loss on January 8. But the Cavaliers would love to have his services tonight as they face off against one of the best young bigs in the league in Karl-Anthony Towns.

Tristan Thompson, who’s been solid since being reinserted into the starting lineup, will have his work cut out for him against the T-Wolves emerging superstar.

Last year, Towns joined Wiggins to quietly form the league’s most prolific scoring duo, and in just over a week, Towns will join LeBron James in Los Angeles as a second-time All-Star.

The former Rookie of the Year and Minnesota’s leading rebounder and shot-blocker can do it all – currently leading the NBA in double-doubles with 47 and ranking fifth in rebounding at 12.2 rpg. One of those 47 double-doubles came back on January 8 when Towns went for 19 and 12 in Minnesota’s 28-point victory. That was the first time in five career contests against the Cavs that Towns scored less than 20 points, but his third double-double.

If the Cavaliers hope to snap out of their oppressive mid-season funk, they’ll have to figure out a way to slow down the big KAT.

Key: Guard Duty

J.R. Smith wasn’t alone when he cooled off after a blistering first quarter on Tuesday night in Orlando – going 4-for-4 from long-range in the period before missing on just two attempts the rest of the way.

The Wine & Gold don’t have a lot of time on their hands right now, but Swish seems to slowly-but-surely be working his way out of a season-long shooting slump – canning at least three three-pointers in four of his last six outings, averaging 12.0 points and shooting .439 from long-distance over that stretch.

He’ll need to keep that pace up on Wednesday night, if only to make four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler have to work on both ends.

In his first season with the T-Wolves, Butler leads the squad in scoring at 22.2 ppg and almost as importantly, has brought a defensive-minded, veteran presence to a young team on the cusp of reaching the postseason for the first time since LeBron James was a rookie.

Butler helped torment the Cavs in the January 8 loss at Target Center – finishing with 21 points, eight boards and a game-high nine assists, going 4-for-6 from beyond the arc in the process. And he’s been a thorn in Cleveland’s side dating back to his Bulls days – having scored at least 20 points in six of his last seven meetings against the Wine & Gold.

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