The three-time reigning conference champions dropped to 4-6 after a surprising 117-115 home loss to Atlanta on Sunday. LeBron James had 26 points and 13 assists and Dwyane Wade added 25 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists off the bench, but the Cavaliers’ trend of slow starts plagued them once more as they couldn’t climb out of a 16-point first-quarter hole.
That prompted Wade, who voluntarily moved to the bench after the team’s first four games, to sound off about the team’s slow starts in which the Cavaliers have been outscored by an average of 9.0 points in the first quarter of their six defeats.
“I want one time for the first unit to get on the second unit because we blew a lead,” he told ESPN. “I’m waiting for that day to happen. We definitely got to start off better.”
Kevin Love was back at practice Monday after being hospitalized to treat an illness following Sunday’s loss. Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue has admitted his team is struggling defensively in the interior with Love out of position at center and minus the injured Tristan Thompson.
Milwaukee (4-5) have wobbled early under the heavy expectations placed on them this season and have dropped three straight following a 105-96 loss at Detroit on Friday night. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 29 points but needed 27 shots to get there, and he got little help aside from Malcolm Brogdon, who added 21 points and 10 assists.
The “Greek Freak” has finally slowed off his breathtaking early pace and has made just 18 of 43 shots in his last two games. Still, the All-Star forward is averaging 31.0 points, 9.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists while shooting 58.3 percent, and he had 34 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists in last month’s 116-97 home loss to Cleveland.
Three keys to the game
Get Korver - The first game between the teams swung on the marksmanship of the veteran small forward. Kyle Korver hit three 3-pointers in a 68-second span of the third quarter that expanded Cleveland's lead from 3 points to 12. He found space each time on virtually an identical set play in which James waited for Korver to curl around a screen back towards him on the wing and hit the open look. The Bucks need to counter by either switching high on the screen or fight through it to at least try to throw Korver off because he's almost automatic when he sets his feet.
Facing the Freak - It wasn't that Antetokounmpo scored 34 points in the first meeting; there's no shame in allowing one of the league's top ten or even top five players to score 34 points. It was the relative ease in which he did so. Antetokounmpo took 17 of his 22 shots from inside the restricted area, and an 18th came from inside the paint. The other surprising stat from that game was that 10 of his 14 baskets were unassisted, which meant he was getting into the lane off the dribble at will. Love's defensive shortcomings means expect to see more of Channing Frye try to slow Antetokounmpo, and anything the 6-11 forward gives the Cavaliers on the offensive end is a bonus.
Rose the rim-runner: Derrick Rose has proven he can still get to the basket, averaging 15.0 points and shooting 47.9 percent. But the veteran guard is shooting 66.7 percent at the rim, and that falls off dramatically to 32.0 percent for mid-range shooting. All four of his shots in last month's game were layups and near the basket, and he also got to the line six times. Those are the shots the Cavaliers need to win.
Matchup to watch
Khris Middleton vs LeBron James - Let's face it, every matchup favors James, but this specific one also neutralizes Middleton on the offensive end because he's trying to contain James. Middleton shot 3 of 10 last month and finished with eight points, and he's averaged 10.8 points in eight games against Cleveland since James re-joined the Cavaliers in the 2014/15 season. That is 8.2 points below Middleton's season average and a contributing reason the Bucks are just 3-10 against James and the Cavaliers in his second go-round in Ohio.
Miwaukee Bucks projected starting lineup
PG - Malcolm Brogdon | SG - Tony Snell | C - John Henson | SF - Khris Middleton | PF - Giannis Antetokounmpo
Cleveland Cavaliers projected starting lineup
PG - Derrick Rose | SG - J. R. Smith | C - Kevin Love | SF - LeBron James | PF - Jae Crowder
About the only thing James hasn't done against the Bucks since re-joining the Cavaliers is record a triple-double. He's averaged 26.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 6.9 assists while shooting 42.6 percent from 3-point range and 53.1 percent overall in 12 games versus Milwaukee since the start of the 2014/15 campaign.
Wade has scored 20.9 points per game lifetime versus Milwaukee, but that has dropped to 12.6 per contest in his last seven while hitting at just a 40.0 percent clip.
Antetokounmpo has recorded four double-doubles in his last nine matchups with Cleveland, averaging 25.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.7 steals while connecting on 55.3 percent of his shots. He also has a 3.5 assist-to-turnover ratio in the last three games between the teams.
Brogdon has been efficient against the Cavaliers, averaging 12.6 points and 4.2 assists while making 55.6 percent of his shots and going 10 of 22 from beyond the arc.
Cleveland are four-point favorites for this game and were one-point underdogs last month in Milwaukee. The over hit for the 21st time in the last 28 games between the teams when it was set at 209.5 points, but getting to 220.5 points for this contest may be too tall an order, even with Cleveland struggling defensively, as the teams have surpassed that total just three times in the last 17 meetings. The Bucks are just 3-7 against the spread in their last ten against Eastern Conference rivals and 1-4-1 in their last six following a straight-up loss. Cleveland have covered just twice in their last 11 games following a straight-up loss and are 1-6 against the spread in their last seven versus Eastern Conference teams.
For all the drama surrounding the Cavaliers, they have played their best against all the "contenders" in the East. They have beaten Boston, Washington and Milwaukee. James has averaged 36.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 8.0 assists while shooting 65.2 percent in those games, so the Bucks have to make James beat them by being a playmaker more than a scorer.
The Cavaliers must figure out a way to prevent Antetokounmpo from getting the ball at the top of the key to prevent isolation plays in which he either drives by or backs down his defender to get to the rim. It may take burning most or all of the 12 fouls between Love and Frye, but until the Bucks prove they are greater than the sum of their parts and can bail out the "Greek Freak" and balance the offense, that's the play the Cavaliers should make.
Expect a mature effort from Cleveland and a 110-105 victory.
This game is being televised nationally on NBA TV and locally on Fox Sports Ohio and Fox Sports Wisconsin. Tip-off time is 7 pm ET.
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