If the Cavs weren’t already in crisis mode, which they probably were, they certainly are now. On Tuesday they lost the second half by 34 points and scored just nine points in the last quarter as they went down 98-116 to one of the worst teams in the league, the Magic. Their record of 30-22 is still enough to have them in third place in the east, but they are now just a couple of bad games away from dropping down to seventh.
Things don’t get easier for them as they host a Minnesota team coming off a solid 118-107 win over New Orleans. Jimmy Butler had 30 points and seven assists in that game as the Timberwolves improved their record to 34-22. They are fourth in the Western Conference standings.
Three keys to the game
Can the Cavs recover after that? - For all of Cleveland’s bad performances, including the 88-120 loss to Houston two games ago, their most recent loss to the Magic was arguably the worst. After coming out with intent and playing good basketball at both ends of the floor in the first half, the Cavs lost the second half 33-65 to a team with a 17-36 record. Where to now?
Travelling Timberwolves - A look at Minnesota’s record over the last 17 games reveals a startling statistic: in all but one of these games, they have won as the home team and lost as the away team. This includes road losses to the Nets, the Magic, and the Hawks. Clearly, this is becoming a problem for the Timberwolves, who are now 12-16 on the road compared to 22-6 at home.
Who’s defense is worse? - Both these teams have high hopes for the rest of the season (yes, the Cavs still have expectations), but the two of them face a similar battle regarding their defense. The Cavs, with a defensive rating of 109.4, are better than only the Kings and the Suns. The Timberwolves aren’t much better - only the Magic, the Hawks and the Bulls sit between their defensive rating and the Cavs. This could be a high-scoring game.
Matchup to watch
Jimmy Butler vs LeBron James - The battle at small forward will be between two of the best players on the floor, and probably two of the top ten players in the league. James, despite having a ‘down’ last few weeks, is still averaging 26.3 points on 54.2% shooting, 8.0 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks. They're solid numbers, though his defense has regressed and Butler is one player who can take advantage of that.
The former Chicago Bulls star is averaging 22.1 points per game on 47.6% shooting in his first year in Minnesota, while also contributing 5.4 boards, 5.0 assists and a couple of steals. On top of that, his defense has continued to be exceptional. While he probably won’t be able to stop LeBron, he will be able to bother him.
Cleveland Cavaliers predicted starting lineup
PG - Isaiah Thomas | SG - JR Smith | SF - LeBron James | PF - Jae Crowder | C - Kevin Love
Minnesota Timberwolves predicted starting lineup
PG - Jeff Teague | SG - Andrew Wiggins | SF - Jimmy Butler | PF - Taj Gibson | C - Karl-Anthony Towns
LeBron’s stats against every team are elite, and Minnesota are no exception. In 28 career outings against them he averages 26.1 points on 53.5% shooting, connects on 40% of 3-point attempts, and contributes 7.8 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.6 steals and just over a block.
Butler has struggled in 19 career games against the Cavs, putting up just 13.7 points per game, lower than against every other team except Washington. He does, however, shoot 43.4% from beyond the arc in these games, and contribute 1.3 steals.
Minnesota have been given a 3.5-point handicap against the Cavs, and the way Cleveland are playing at the moment it is difficult to imagine this line not being handled pretty easily by the Timberwolves. Back Minnesota to cover the line.
It would be difficult to pick Cleveland against any team in the league at the moment, let alone a very good outfit in the Timberwolves. Minnesota have recently confined their good play to their home court, and on the road they are a different proposition, but Cleveland are quite simply in all sorts of trouble.
James vs Butler will be a fascinating matchup and will influence the game significantly, and if Butler can hold his own and get good contributions from Towns, Wiggins and co. the Timberwolves are a good chance.
Cleveland might score a few points, but their defense won’t be good enough to hold off Minnesota, who will leave with a 118-110 victory.
The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN. Tip-off is at 8pm ET.