So, here's the situation on our end:
- The Thunder have lost two straight games to two really good opponents.
- Russell Westbrook doesn't appear to be 100%, and will likely take a couple of weeks to get there.
- They're 5 games behind Atlanta for the last spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, with 24 games left to play.
- Aside from Tristan Thompson, everyone on their roster has missed at least two games up to this point.
- Anthony Bennett, last year's #1 pick, looks to have "bust" written all over him. He's shooting 34% from the floor and is averaging 0.9 turnovers a game to 0.3 assists a game.
- Andrew Bynum, once an All-Star Center, reportedly sandbagged it once he failed to meet his contract incentives. He was eventually thrown out of practice, suspended, and shipped to the Bulls for Luol Deng.
- Luol Deng didn't work out either. I quote, "the stuff going on in practice would never be tolerated by the coaching staff or the front office back in Chicago. It’s a mess." Despite getting traded to a worse team, Deng's stats are down across the board.
- The GM who made those two moves, Chris Grant, has been fired.
- Their hope for the future, Kyrie Irving, has just announced that he wants to be traded.
That's the short of it. This is a team that came into the season with a lot of expectations and a lot of good pieces in place. But they ended up taking too many risks with their personnel, and it could never end up meshing just right. There's still time for them to recover, but that window is closing very rapidly.
Of course, none of that matters to us tonight. Despite the fact that it's been over a year since the last time these two teams met, the memories of their last matchup still resonate clearly in my brain. If you need a reminder, check it:
Yeah, Kyrie Irving absolutely shredded us on that night. At the time, many were quick to blame Brooks, who didn't instruct the Thunder to put any sort of pressure on Irving. He also played Perk over Sefolosha, who could have provided that pressure. But with as good of a defender as Russell is, the responsibility partially fell on his shoulders as well.
What makes last season's run by Kyrie so significant? Well, it's one of the only times I can remember the Thunder folding at the hands of a single player. It happened last week when LeBron stomped through town, but other than that you'd be hard pressed to find an incident where a single player was so instrumental in beating this Thunder team.
Irving's explosion seemed to come out of nowhere, too. He's always been a star guard, but he was never particularly successful against the Thunder. In fact, I wrote that his presence in the earlier Thunder-Cavaliers game that season wasn't that notable. As you can see from this video, a lot of his work was done in transition and on basic pick and rolls.
It will be exciting to see if the warrior in Westbrook can push his recovering body into containing Irving tonight, particularly when the game gets down to the nitty gritty. Kyrie will likely be hard-pressed to score tonight, as the status of three of his compadres (Varejao, Waiters, and Miles) hangs up in the air. A fat contract likely awaits him if he plays well, so I wouldn't put too much stock into the fact that he asked to be moved.
But Irving isn't the only player on this Cavaliers team. Their next best guaranteed guy will be Spencer Hawes, who was acquired at the trade deadline from the Sixers. Hawes' already made an impact on his new team, scoring 15 and 16 points in the Cavs' losses to Toronto and Washington, respectively. It's a bit surprising given how much slower the Cavaliers are than the Sixers, but Hawes is excellent at carrying out the pick and roll. His outside jumpers can also torment opposing offenses, and he'll likely fire off a few on Perk early on.
The aforementioned Deng is fighting through an achilles injury and will likely play at a lower level. Jarrett Jack is always a threat to isolate and score against your point guard, but he's only as good as his offense. Tristan Thompson stands a chance of scoring a few too many garbage buckets if the Thunder go small for too long.
But really, this night is going to come down to Kyrie. There's going to be a point where the Cavaliers are struggling to find scoring options, and he needs to come through big. Like, 40 points big. With Waiters and Miles likely out, the Cavs just don't have enough artillery on the perimeter to compete with the Thunder.
Thus, this should be a relatively easy victory. Should be.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 109, Cleveland Cavaliers 97.
What do you think of tonight's game? Let us know in the comments!