8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Thunder -2, Over/Under: 222.5
Let’s play a game of Six Degrees of LeBron James, folks, as the new-look, renovated Cleveland Cavaliers battle the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena, in a primetime matchup full of star-power. After months of performing well below expectations, the Cavaliers (33-22, 3rd in Eastern Conference) desperately made a bid to get better and shorten the gap in the East, acquiring four new players in a flurry of deals at the Trade Deadline. Before we get into the comings and goings, it cannot be overstated that this was a team in desperate need of a change, for since December 19th they were a dismal 9-14, with a number of factors plaguing their play on the court, from borderline pathetic efforts on the defensive end, to internal chaos in the lockerroom. Just look at the numbers, folks; between January and February alone, Tyronn Lue’s charges had gone just 8-10, while permitting opponents to shoot a blistering 49.5% from the field, including 38.3% from beyond the arc, along with a staggering 27.1 Assists per Game. So again, changes clearly needed to be made, though we had no idea just how sweeping said changes would be. In three separate deals, Cleveland General Manager Koby Altman did his best Kevin Costner impersonation from Draft Day, sending the much-maligned Isaiah Thomas (14.7 PTS, 36.1% FG, 25.3% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 4.5 AST, 12.4 PER), along with Backup Forward Channing Frye (4.8 PTS, 49.7% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 13.8 PER) and the team’s own 2018 First Round Pick (I.E. Not the Nets’ Pick) to the Los Angeles Lakers for Combo Guard Jordan Clarkson (14.5 PTS, 44.8% FG, 32.4% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 3.3 AST, 17.1 PER) and uber-athletic Forward Larry Nance Jr. (8.6 PTS, 60.1% FG, 6.8 REB, 1.4 AST, 1.4 STL, 19.6 PER). Shortly after that transaction was made public, the announcement of a Three-Team Deal including the Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings was announced, which allowed the Cavs to poach Swingman Rodney Hood (16.8 PTS, 42.4% FG, 38.9% 3FG, 2.8 REB, 1.7 AST, 0.8 STL, 15.5 PER) from the former, and veteran Point Guard George Hill (10.3 PTS, 46.9% FG, 45.3% 3FG, 2.7 REB, 2.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 14.1 PER) from the latter, while simultaneously parting ways with the troubled Derrick Rose (9.8 PTS, 43.9% FG, 25.0% 3FG, 1.8 REB, 1.6 AST, 11.6 PER) in one fell swoop. And if that wasn’t enough, they sent former Finals MVP Dwyane Wade (11.2 PTS, 45.5% FG, 32.9% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 3.5 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.7 BLK, 16.0 PER) back to the Miami Heat as a gesture of good faith for a protected Second Round Pick (I.E. Cash Considerations). So while you take a moment to process all of that information, keep in mind that this team was (and still is) under tremendous pressure to turn things around, given the injury to All-Star Forward Kevin Love (17.9 PTS, 46.3% FG, 40.4% 3FG, 9.4 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.7 STL, 22.9 PER), and of course the impending Free Agency of LeBron James (26.4 PTS, 54.4% FG, 35.9% 3FG, 8.1 REB, 8.9 AST, 1.6 STL, 1.0 BLK, 27.6 PER), which has once again become the biggest Soap Opera in the World of Sports. So, after all that, just how did the King and the LeBronettes look in their debut Sunday against the Boston Celtics, you ask? DAMN GOOD. For a collection of players put together nearly four days prior to tipoff at TD Garden, Cleveland looked like a well-oiled machine, embarrassing Boston 121-99 victory. After a nip-and-tuck First Quarter, the visiting side ran the hosts out of their own gym, outscoring their rivals 90-67 the rest of the way. James, who appeared to tweak his knee late in the first stanza, looked no worse for wear moving forward, nearly messed around and got a Triple-Double posting Twenty-Four Points on 9-f-20 shooting from the field (45.0%), along with Eight Rebounds and Ten Assists. It was clear that the new Supporting Cast wanted to make a strong first impression, and did they ever, with Hill, Clarkson, Hood, and Nance accounting for Forty-Nine Points on an efficient 18-of-35 shooting (51.4%), including 8-of-15 from downtown (53.3%), against arguably the best defensive team in the league. And speaking of Defense, you can read into it however you like, but the Cavaliers relegated the inept Celtics to just 40.4% shooting overall, including 10-of-38 from long-range (26.3%), while holding their own on the Glass (Minus-2 REB), and forcing Fourteen Turnovers in comparison to yielding Twenty-Two Assists. And the proverbial icing on the cake was bottling up former teammate (though how many of their number can actually claim that distinction at this point is anyone’s guess) Kyrie Irving to Eighteen Points and a miserable shooting day from Three (1-of-7). It’s remarkable to think that in the span of roughly Thirty Minutes, that Cleveland managed to improve in a number of areas, particularly in terms of their youth, perimeter shooting, and athleticism. While they’re still firmly behind the 8-Ball in terms of building the requisite chemistry to challenge the Warriors once more for an NBA Championship, their early showing has lent credence to the belief that the learning curve is not nearly as steep as we had initially surmised.
Meanwhile, as their opponent tonight undergoes the delicate process of integrating so many new faces into their side, the Thunder (32-25, 5th in Western Conference) can attest to the difficulty of said task, since they’ve spent the entirety of the campaign doing largely the same thing. Of course, Oklahoma City sent shockwaves throughout the league when they acquired both Paul George (22.4 PTS, 44.5% FG, 42.8% 3FG, 5.4 REB, 3.1 AST, 2.2 STL, 19.7 PER) and Carmelo Anthony (17.0 PTS, 41.2%, FG, 34.7% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 1.4 AST, 13.7 PER) in a pair of separate deals completed over the Summer. Initially, the thought of adding the likes of those two All-Stars to a Rotation carried by the reigning MVP Russell Westbrook (25.5 PTS, 44.5% FG, 30.5% 3FG, 9.3 REB, 10.3 AST, 2.0 AST, 25.1 PER), who was fresh off of a historic season in which he not only broke Oscar Robertson’s Single-Season Record for Triple-Doubles, but managed to AVERAGE a Triple-Double as well, and the faithful in Oklahoma were literally foaming at the mouth. However, anyone that would even bother to listen to Billy Donovan’s opinion on the acquisitions would have to agree that it was going to indeed be quite a process in finding in integrating two ball-dominant scoring machines with arguably the MOST ball-dominant player in the game today. And let’s face it, folks, there was no guarantee that this experiment would even work, particularly with the aforementioned George’s looming Free Agency. Ironically, both George and Anthony have been linked with LeBron James on a number of occasions in the past and (in the former’s case) the present as well, with James openly campaigning for Cleveland to acquire Anthony by any means necessary, while George was very nearly traded to Northern Ohio this Offseason before the Thunder stepped in and ultimately pried him away from Indiana. And then there are the persistent rumors that have been swirling for months now that James and George will apparently be joining forces in Free Agency this Summer, potentially changing the landscape of the league once again. And with all that said, let’s take a moment to shift our focus back to the present, and tonight’s matchup with these highly-debated players competing for their CURRENT teams. It seems as if the All-Star Break can’t come quick enough for the Thunder, who appear to be in desperate need of the layoff after dropping five out of their last seven games, including four in a row at one point. This is certainly the point of the schedule in which fatigue sets in, with injuries playing a huge role in their fortunes; in addition to losing a very underappreciated (though not to the Thunder) Swingman like Andre Roberson (5.0 PTS, 53.7%, 4.7 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.2 STL, 11.0 PER) to a season-ending torn Patella Tendon, this team has been without both Westbrook and Anthony (both sitting with ankle pain) in each of their last two outings, further taxing Donovan’s Depth, which was skeptical at best. After getting embarrassed by the short-handed Lakers in a 101-86 blowout loss on Thursday, Oklahoma City rebounded to annihilate the listless Memphis Grizzlies this past Sunday to the tune of 110-92. This one was over early, folks, as the hosts raced out to a 35-18 lead at the conclusion of the First Quarter, never trailing the rest of the way. The home side relegated the visitors to just 39.0% shooting from the field, including 6-of-28 from downtown (21.4%), while harassing them into Seventeen Turnovers, which parlayed into just as many points for George and Co., with the All-Star scoring a game-high Thirty-Three Points on 10-of-24 shooting (41.7%), including 5-of-10 from beyond the arc (50.0%), while filling up the stat sheet with Eight Assists, Three Steals, and a Block. Quality of opponent aside, Donovan had to have been satisfied with his troops’ performance, particularly without two of their biggest components, as five different players ended the night in Double-Figures, with the team as a whole enjoying excellent ball-movement with Twenty-One Assists in comparison to just Nine Turnovers, while bombing away from distance (16-of-37, Plus-30 3FG) and getting to the Line a whopping forty times (making 26).