Cleveland (5-6) overcame 56.6 percent shooting by Milwaukee on Tuesday night by outscoring the Bucks 33-12 at the foul line in their 124-119 victory. LeBron James had 30 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists while Kevin Love turned in his best game of the season with 32 points and 16 rebounds as the Cavaliers withstood an onslaught at the basket by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who scored 40 points on 16-of-21 shooting.
The Cavaliers are 28th in scoring defense (113.9 points per game), 29th in the league in defensive field goal percentage (48.5), last in 3-point defensive field goal percentage (42.0) and last in 3-pointers allowed (147). They have allowed opponents to hit at least 11 3-pointers in each of their last 10 games.
That does not bode well when playing a Houston Rockets team who lead the NBA in 3-pointers made (166) and attempted (490) as they let James Harden break down an opponent off the dribble and let him decide if he will try to score in the lane or pass to one of their many shooters waiting beyond the arc.
The Rockets (8-3) have won three straight after finally firing on all cylinders from the perimeter in a 137-110 thrashing of Utah on Sunday night. Harden scored a career-high 56 points, which is one off the NBA season-high James set last Friday, as he made 7 of 8 from 3-point range and 19 of 25 overall while also matching a season high with 13 assists.
Houston shot 59 percent (23 of 39) from beyond the arc, marking the first time this season they made better than 40 percent of their attempts from deep. They have averaged 125.0 points during a current three-game winning streak, connecting on 58 of 138 (42.0 percent) from 3-point range.
Three keys to the game
Trying to harass Harden - No one will envy Derrick Rose, J. R. Smith or even Dwyane Wade as the trio have the unenviable task of trying to slow down a player responsible for 50 points per game when factoring in points and assists like Harden does for the Rockets. And it's not like they can be physical with Harden because he's such an excellent free throw shooter, though his season mark of 80.5 percent is well off his career standard of 85.3 percent. It's pick your poison guarding him right now; play him tight and he could blow right into the lane or play off him and let him bury a slew of 3-pointers.
And then there's LeBron - For all the talk of trying to slow Harden, the Rockets face a similar Sisyphus-like task in containing James. He's shooting at a spectacular 59.8 percent clip overall, but that jumps to a staggering 63.0 percent in four road games (53 for 83) because he's finishing at the rim. James is 31 for 38 inside of five feet and also being judicious about his 3-point shots on the road, going 6 for 13. Oh, and he's still playmaking at a high level with 36 assists in those contests.
Gordon's shooting conscience - Should he stay healthy and play 81 games since he already missed one, Gordon is on pace to set an NBA record with 918 3-pointers attempted. That is 32 more than Stephen Curry's record mark of 886 set in 2015/16. While Gordon does not have Curry's marksmanship as he enters this contest hitting at a 34.8 percent clip, the fact Gordon is almost always good for at least four 3-pointers a game puts a unique stress on opposing defenses. And don't forget he can still finish at the rim as he's made 67.4 percent of his shots (31 of 46) inside five feet.
Matchup to watch
Kevin Love vs Clint Capela - Much has been made of Love's shortcomings defensively, which makes being matched up against Capela intriguing. The Rockets run little offense through Capela as his usage rate is just 18.9 percent, but he's accounted for 28.2 percent of their baskets. He also has grabbed 73.3 percent of Houston's offensive rebounds and taken exactly one of his 89 shots outside the paint. For Love, his defensive concerns will be on rotations after the primary defender gets beat given how the Rockets run their offense, and that could give Capela all the space he needs to do his dirty work under the basket. Love will cause problems for Capela with his inside-out game, but he also stayed in the low post most of last game, taking 13 of his 14 shots from 10 feet and closer.
Cleveland Cavaliers projected starting lineup
PG - Derrick Rose | SG - J. R. Smith | C - Kevin Love | SF - LeBron James | PF - Jae Crowder
Houston Rockets projected starting lineup
PG - James Harden | SG - Eric Gordon | C - Clint Capela | SF - Trevor Ariza | PF - Ryan Anderson
James has averaged 25.6 points in 25 career games versus the Rockets, but his 5.8 assists per game are his lowest against any team in his storied career. He's shot 43.3 percent in 13 lifetime games at Houston but also has five 30-point performances there.
Love has averaged 19.3 points and 11.1 rebounds in 22 games against the Rockets, recording 13 double-doubles. He has a slight uptick in those numbers at Houston at 19.6 points and 11.6 rebounds per game, and he's also connected on 42.6 percent of his 3-pointers (20 for 47) there.
Since joining the Rockets in 2013, Harden is averaging 29.5 points, 8.4 assists and 6.1 rebounds in eight games against Cleveland. He scored 79 last season as the teams split two games, had a triple-double in the most recent meeting and racked up 26 assists against five turnovers.
Gordon has been surprisingly efficient against the Cavaliers in his career, averaging 18.4 points in 12 games while shooting 40.6 percent from 3-point range and posting a 55.0 effective field goal percentage.
About the only place the Cavaliers have been a good play against the spread is on the road, where they are 10-4-1 in their last 15, but there are multiple current trends against them. Cleveland, who are five-point underdogs for this game, are 1-7 against the spread in their last eight games against the Southwest Division and 1-7-1 in their last nine overall. They are also 2-10 against the spread in their last 12 trips to Houston, but the Rockets are also 4-10 in their last 14 at home against the number.
The over/under has slipped four points to 228, and with both teams hitting the over in their last four games individually, that feels like a strong play given how the Rockets will attempt approximately 45 3-pointers and James will probably be good for 35 points and have assists that lead to another 15 to 20 points.
This game is about whether the Cavaliers can answer some of the questions regarding their defense. Can Rose and/or Smith stay in front of Harden? Can the one who doesn't guard Harden be disciplined enough to not get sucked in and leave Gordon alone on the wing? Who makes the second defensive rotation in the paint to guard Capela after Love rotates to stop the driver in the lane? Cleveland talk a good game about needing to communicate on defense but they've yet to do it consistently.
The Rockets have their own set of issues in trying to stop James. Trevor Ariza likely will get the first crack at it, but must prevent James from backing him down on the baseline before he buries his new favorite weapon, the turnaround baseline jumper. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute could be a better defensive matchup, but he's not 100 percent as he's dealing with a sore knee. That could also be disastrous given how proficient James has been attacking the basket.
This will be an up-and-down and entertaining game. It would not be surprising to see James and Harden both finish with triple-doubles. But Cleveland's deficiencies on the perimeter defensively will be too much for James to offset as the Rockets win 133-126.
This game will be televised nationally on TNT. Tip-off time is 8 pm EST.
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