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Thunder and Cavaliers meet for the big one

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Early season injuries and disorder threatened to take us away from this basketball Nirvana, but we're finally getting what we wanted.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

We all know the backstory on the Cavs, so let's not waste time there. Instead, let's take a look at Cleveland's recent 8 game win streak. It's been over exclusively Eastern Conference teams, but looks impressive after a 5-7 start to the season. Much has been written about the streak over at Fear the Sword, with several articles digging deep into the reasons for the Cavaliers finally coming together. Here's the Cliff's notes, with links if you're so inclined.

  • LeBron is becoming much more of an assist man. Kendon Luscher points out that LeBron averaged 9.72 assists per game over the first 7 games of the Cavs win streak, compared to an overall average of 7.9. In other words, he's letting other players be the primary scorers.
  • Tristan Thompson is turning into a defensive monster. William Bohl points out that Thompson plays in crunch time for Cleveland (rather than the starter, Varejao). Thompson isn't the rim protector that Cleveland needs quite yet, but he defends the pick and roll well. Generally, he and all of Cleveland's bigs will hedge hard and not allow the roller to take an open jumper.
  • Kevin Love is figuring out a new offensive role. William Bohl talks about how Love is getting more post ups and is seeing more success with Kyrie Irving in the pick and roll. Furthermore, Love is figuring out the footwork involved in taking corner threes, which doesn't come naturally when he's used to wing threes.
  • Kyrie Irving is becoming a catch and shoot player. Ryan Mourton takes a look at Irving's improves offense and defense during the streak. Irving's offense was the result of bringing more of his shots closer to the rim, along with making the vast majority of his outside shots assisted. Irving's defense is more inscrutable, but the numbers back it up.
  • Dion Waiters will randomly have great nights. He's still the fourth pick of the 2012 draft, you know. In his recap of the Nets game, David Zivac describes a player with great talent and poor decision making. Still, Waiters' timeliness on the fast break and increasing assist count suggest that he may finally be clicking with teammates. Nevertheless, trade rumors (including one for Kosta Koufos) persist.

Those results look pretty conclusive to me. The Cavaliers haven't necessarily cemented themselves as masters of the NBA, but they've certainly got to be considered a legitimate contender in the East. Tonight's game against the Thunder will be an effective test.

We don't know how this version of the Cavaliers will match up, but we can look at how individual players have performed against the Thunder in the past for some clues. Chris Hanneke made a hardcore breakdown of last year's matchup between Kyrie and Westbrook, which you should also definitely check out. The moral of the story is that Russell Westbrook will need to be very attentive to Kyrie Irving on defense. Irving was able to get a few easy catch and shoots while Russ was napping last year, and he's even more inclined to do so under his new role this year. On the other end, Westbrook will need to establish his jumper quickly and early so he can open up things for the roll man, especially with the Cavs wanting to hedge high.

Last year's other game was a late-season trudge in Cleveland. The Thunder were able to hold off a late run from an injured Cavs team that had essentially given up on the season, but the big story was 22 points coming from Dion Waiters. You can take a look at Waiters' highlight reel here, and what you'll find is impressive. Waiters manages to get points in just about every fashion, from fast breaks to weak side threes to iso jumpers to posting up a smaller defender. Waiters' timeliness that game and Roberson's slower arms might have had something to do with the run, but I'm having a hard time seeing Jeremy Lamb or Anthony Morrow give Waiters much of a problem off the bench. He's definitely someone to keep an eye on as the game progresses.

As for LeBron and Love, those dudes have their own storied histories with the Thunder. Love is probably most well known for dropping 51 on the Thunder during the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 season. It pretty much only happened because Perk was guarding him, and Love's stats have leveled off since. Ibaka and Love will pretty much cancel each other out in most circumstances, with Ibaka's superior defense and efficient statline contrasting with Love's dead-eye shot and powerful rebounding ability.

Likewise, LeBron is a counterpart to KD. But you already knew that. There's not much I can say about the LeBron-KD matchup that you don't already know, but I will say that LeBron's new pass-focused game could make things that much more interesting.

On OKC's end, the team is going to hope to continue to get great production from their bench. Jackson and Lamb have been the primary forces behind this trend. Jackson's been doing his usual thing, playing lots of pick and roll and captaining the bench. Lamb, on the other hand, has been absurdly hot from three from absurdly deep. That's not exactly a recipe for sustained success. But with Jeremy Lamb, everything is about confidence. Between Jackson and Lamb's big games, Anthony Morrow has managed to put in some quietly solid performances as well. Morrow's tendency to fire quickly and play atrocious D can definitely grate on you as a fan, but his numbers don't lie.

Another interesting bench story will be the continued return of Perry Jones III. After struggling through his first two seasons in the NBA partially due to injury, Jones broke out over the first couple games of the season. Jones' 32 points against the Clippers were no joke, nor were his 20 on the Nuggets or 16 on the Nets. Sadly, a knocked knee against Toronto in the next game kept Jones out for way too long. In his first true game back against the Bucks last night, he was given about 17 non garbage time minutes. Effectively, Brooks had given Jones Collison's spot in the rotation. It's an interesting move, and can definitely be seen as one aimed at increasing bench scoring production to ridiculous levels.

Anyway, tonight's game should be a great dose of the high scoring, competitive basketball that we've all been missing. Still, if I had to put money on this game, it'd go right with OKC. I feel like the Thunder have more options on their bench than the Cavaliers do, especially when it comes to scoring. Furthermore, the Cavs only have a small track record of success behind them, while the Thunder have years. Sure, some of the faces have changed, but I feel like the winning structure is here. And we're going to see it in full display tonight.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 120, Cleveland Cavaliers 116 (OT).

What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2014-15 NBA Season Game 22
(Won 8)

(Won 3)
December 11th, 2014
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Turner Network Television Only
Injury Report: Mike Miller (Questionable)
Previous Matchups: Feb 26 (L 114-104), Mar 20 (W 102-95)
Probable Starters
Kyrie Irving PG Russell Westbrook
Shawn Marion SG Andre Roberson
LeBron James SF Kevin Durant
Kevin Love PF Serge Ibaka
Anderson Varejao C Steven Adams