3:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Cleveland -3.5
The league’s two brightest stars meet for the first time this season as the Cleveland Cavaliers host the Oklahoma City Thunder in what was likely billed as a potential NBA Finals preview before the season began. However, with half of the regular season already in the books, both teams have put together incomplete resumes. In the case of the Thunder (22-21, 2nd in Northwest), injuries have been their biggest issue, particularly to the likes of superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook; the former missed the first twenty-three games of the campaign rehabbing from a broken bone in his foot suffered shortly before the Preseason began, while the latter lost fourteen games to an ailing knee and an injured hand. As a result, Oklahoma City has been fighting an uphill battle through the first forty-three games, and has finally found itself on the fringe of the Playoffs in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, trailing the Phoenix Suns by three games. However, there is room for optimism for Scott Brooks and his charges, for in the twenty games that both Durant and Westbrook have been on the floor together, the team has won fourteen games. If they manage to keep up that torrid pace, than they should have little trouble climbing the ladder out West with little over three months to play in the regular season. What these guys mean to their team is rather obvious, as they combine as arguably the most devastating tandem in the NBA today. Together, they account for a whopping 50.3 points per game, which translates to 50.3% of the Thunder’s scoring output. The perennial All-Stars also account for 12.8 rebounds, 11.5 assists, and 3.2 steals. The issue though, has been the supporting cast in recent years, particularly the Bench, which has been dangerously thin. Management responded with the acquisition of one Dion Waiters, who fell out of favor with the Cavaliers, only to give Brooks a shot in the arm off the pine. The Fourth Overall Pick in the 2012 NBA Draft has averaged 11.4 points in eight games as a member of the Thunder, along with 2.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 1.8 steals in 28.0 minutes of action. The twenty-three-year old should relish the opportunity to compete against his former teammates today.
After dropping thirteen of their first eighteen outings, Brooks and Co. went on a roll once Westbrook, and later Durant, returned to the lineup, winning twelve out of sixteen, including seven in a row at one point. Recently, they saw their four-game winning streak come to an abrupt end in Atlanta Friday Night at the hands of the red-hot Hawks. After jumping out to an early 30-23 lead in the First Quarter, the visitors played victim to a lengthy rally from the hosts, who went on to outscore them 80-63 over the final thirty-six minutes of play. Save for the opening stanza, the Thunder were largely cold from the field, netting a poor 41.4% of their attempts overall, with Durant shooting an uncharacteristic 8-of-22 from the floor (36.4%). Big man Serge Ibaka also struggled, knocking down just six of his sixteen attempts (37.5%). Defensively, Oklahoma City simply couldn’t contain Atlanta’s efficient attack, yielding 48.2% shooting from the field, including a stellar 10-of-25 from beyond the arc (40.0%), all the while getting pummeled on the glass 47-36. Westbrook dropped a game-high twenty-two points on 8-of-16 shooting (50.0%)racking up eleven assists and a three steals, while Waiters contributed with eight points off the Bench. Even with his contribution, Brooks’ reserve unit was no match for their counterpart, as the Hawks outscored 32-22 in that regard. As one can imagine, the Thunder have improved vastly on the offensive end since Durant and Westbrook have returned to active duty, averaging 105.9 points per game on 45.1% shooting from the field, but in an odd twist have regressed on the defensive end of the floor, as opponents have torched them for 102.3 points on 43.8% shooting from the field. That’s primarily because they have played at a much faster pace with the dynamic duo on the court, which in turn allows the opposition more shots themselves. Oklahoma City will rack up quite the body count against poor-shooting teams, but when facing the more efficient teams in the league (such as Atlanta), the contest often degenerates into a shootout. Expect, the Cavaliers to shoot much better against them than in their previous meeting this season; with LeBron James nursing an injured back, the Thunder relegated the visiting Cavs to a pitiful 36.5% shooting from the field, including 9-of-28 from downtown (32.1%), with fourteen turnovers. In fact, the only reason that the 103-94 victory was even that close, was because Cleveland managed to make quite an impact form the charity stripe, knocking down twenty-three of their thirty free-throws. That night, the Thunder only netted 43.7% of their attempts overall, including a mere 7-of-26 from three-point land (26.9%). We’re going to go out on a limb and guess that they’ll have to shoot a bit better than that to earn the season sweep today…
Meanwhile, it’s been a similar story for the Cavaliers (24-20, 2nd in Central), who have gotten hot after the return of the talisman star LeBron James. After the four-time MVP returned from an eight-game stretch on the Bench nursing an ailing back, the Cavs have since won five consecutive contests by a swelling margin. Cleveland dispatched Chicago and Utah by fourteen points apiece, before absolutely embarrassing the Hornets in a 129-90 rout. The hosts shot a stellar 51.7% from the field, including a blistering 15-of-28 from beyond the arc (53.6%), and knocked down twenty-two of their twenty-eight attempts from the free-throw line (78.6%). David Blatt’s charges also dished out a healthy twenty-nine assists, while committing just eleven turnovers, and battered Charlotte on the glass, outrebounding them 56-42. James posted totals of twenty-five points, six rebounds, nine assists, and four steals in just 26:37 of action, while Kyrie Irving added another eighteen points on 7-of-11 shooting (58.3%), with four rebounds and a pair of assists. J.R. Smith had arguably his finest game since he was acquired from New York two weeks ago, scoring twenty-one points, drilling seven of his eleven attempts from long-range (63.6%). On the flipside of things, the visitors couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean for the majority of the outing, shooting a poor 40.4% from the field, including a dreadful 2-of-16 from three (12.5%). Remarkably, they assisted on twenty-seven of their thirty-six field goals (75.0%), yet still managed to get blown out by thirty-nine points. Thanks to this latest run, the Cavaliers have ascended to middle of the playoff picture in the significantly weaker Eastern Conference, trailing division rival Chicago by 4.5 games for fourth in the pecking order.
Coming into today’s contest, most will quickly single out the matchup between James and Durant. The last two MVPs have dominated the league over the past four years, though each has been dogged by injuries at various points of the 2014-2015 campaign. However, the individual matchup has been fairly one-sided; including the postseason, James has earned a decisive advantage over Durant, winning fourteen of the eighteen matchups, including the 2012 NBA Finals, which his Miami Heat took in five games. In those contests, the twelfth-year veteran has averaged 28.8 points on a stellar 51.8% shooting from the field, along with 7.4 rebounds, 6.8 assists, while committing 3.4 turnovers. However, as has typically been the case when these two stars lock horns, it comes down to their supporting cast. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are no longer flanking him on the court, and it hasn’t necessarily been the smoothest of transitions to his new comrades in arms. The biggest change is that in Miami, James played primarily out of the post when he wasn’t racing up and down the court. Now in his second tour of duty in Cleveland, the Ohio native has had to shift back to a hybrid Point Forward position, which has allowed for more fluid ball movement with his teammates, particularly the aforementioned Irving and Kevin Love. Despite their ups and downs, the Cavs are one of the better offensive teams in the league, ranking tenth overall in Effective Field Goal Percentage (50.6%), Turnover Percentage (13.0%), and Offensive Rebounding Percentage (27.2%), while sitting at fifth overall in Free-Throw/Field Goal Percentage (22.9%). Irving, who visibly clashed with him earlier in the season, has gradually fallen in line, building quite the rapport with the eleven-time All-Star; the explosive Point Guard has averaged 21.2 points on 45.8% shooting from the field, including 46.8% from three, along with 3.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists in the month of January. Love on the other hand has had a harder time adjusting to his role as the “third wheel”, with a lingering back injury keeping him the productive Power Forward from fully integrating himself into the starting five. The big man has averaged 17.5 points on a career-low 43.0% shooting, including just 32.8% fro long-range. But with all that said, by far and away the most glaring weakness on this squad is their play on the defensive end of the court, which at times has been disastrous. Allowing 100.1 points per game (21st Overall) on 46.7% shooting from the field (28th Overall) is hardly championship caliber, which is amazing given the fact that no team has sent their opponents to the free-throw line fewer times than the Cavs. In essence, they don’t even bother fouling, they just let the opposition get to the rim untouched. To Blatt’s chagrin, Cleveland has permitted 51.1% shooting from within the three-point arc, second-worst in the league, as no deterrent has revealed himself with Anderson Verejao out for the remainder of the campaign with a torn Achilles. Management added Timofey Mozgov last week in a trade with the Nuggets, but the slow-footed big man isn’t likely to change their fortunes overnight. Oklahoma City’s Durant and Westbrook are very proficient at getting to the rim, and you can expect them to exploit that weakness early and often today.