Cleveland, already in a rut with rumors swirling that their first year coach may have already lost his team, got some unwelcome news this past week. LeBron James will miss two weeks with back and leg strains as the team prepared for a tough Western Conference road trip.
So the Mavericks -- the first opponent on that road trip -- will face the new look Cavs for the first time this season without the world's best player suiting up. That's a lucky break for Dallas, which enters the matchup with a four-game win streak. Cleveland, meanwhile has managed to win only five of its last 10 games even after knocking off Charlotte Friday.
But the team is not without serious talent even after losing LeBron. In addition to James, the Cavs this offseason acquired All-NBA big man Kevin Love to team up with All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving. Undersized forward-center Tristan Thompson has also proven to be more than adept at impacting games on the offensive glass. And reserve shooting guard Dion Waiters is a solid, if not yet efficient, young player.
Which Cleveland player might be due for a big game?
Love has put up pretty pedestrian (by his standards) numbers for most of the season. He's averaging 17 points and just under 10 rebounds after posting averages of 26 and 12.5 last season. His usage rate has also declined from 28.8 to 21.4 percent while his superstar level 26.9 PER has tumbled to 18. And in fourth quarters, he's sometime found himself riding the pine.
With James out Friday against the Charlotte Hornets, however, Love put up 27 points on 15 shot attempts along with five rebounds. Look for Cleveland to continue to expand his role today with James out again.
What's the biggest matchup to watch?
Rondo vs. Irving.
Maybe it's unfair to Rajon to insist he's drawn the key matchup so often. But Irving has proven to be the Cavaliers' best player this season after James and Rondo was acquired to help stop elite point guards like him. Dallas has seen flashes of defensive ability against the likes of Russell Westbrook and John Wall and the numbers so far backup those observations.
If Rondo and the other Mavericks guards can slow Irving down, that will go a long way toward securing a win against the short-handed Cavaliers. He can also make Irving work on the other end by staying aggressive on the offensive end. Against Boston Friday, Rondo showed little of the hesitation that normally plagues his outside shot and hit a career high five three point field goals. His last three pointer, off a pass from Dirk Nowitzki with 2:50 left, helped put a Boston comeback out of reach.
What do the Mavs need to do to be successful against Cleveland?
Attack the paint. Dallas had a lot of success against an elite Washington defensive team this week and put up 119 Friday on a Celtics team with a pesky backcourt. In the Cavaliers, they'll face a squad ranked 20th in defensive rating, according to Basketball Reference. Those struggles are in part a result of poor rim protection even before a season-ending injury to center Anderson Varejao.
Love is a decent one-on-one post defender but will not be an effective deterrent to opponents driving to the rim. Thompson, who started next to Love Friday night, is a better defensive presence but not an elite one. Mavericks guards will pretty much have an invitation to the rim Sunday night but the team will also have to work keep the Cavaliers' big men from crashing the offensive glass.
What are the Cavaliers' biggest strength and weakness?
Like the LeBron-era Miami Heat, this Cavs team has enough All-Star level talent to overwhelm most Eastern Conference teams when they really turn it on. But head coach David Blatt has yet to figure out how to effectively integrate Love into a lineup with his fellow stars and 30 games into the season it's worth asking if he ever will.
Most NBA observers knew coming in that Love was not going to be the rim-protecting big man that Bosh was in Miami for much of the last four years next to LeBron. What's been more surprising is the struggles of James, Irving and Love to mesh on the offensive end. He's become much more of a spot-up shooter this season and has yet to consistently show off his superstar abilities.
Which familiar faces will Mavs fans see in Cleveland?
In Boston on Friday, Celtics coach Brad Stevens for several minutes played a lineup consisting of Jameer Nelson, Jae Crowder and Brandan Wright -- the three players used to acquire Rondo -- along with former Maverick Brandon Bass and Flower Mound High School alum Marcus Smart.
When they warm up today, the Mavericks will run into two members of the 2011 title team in Shawn Marion and Brendan Haywood. Marion left for a chance at a bigger role on the Cavs this offseason after Dallas made clear they were looking to get younger at small forward with the signing of Chandler Parsons. His role has been inconsistent so far but Haywood, who spent the previous two seasons in Charlotte, has mostly been a cheerleader from the sidelines this year.