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Thunder gear up for evolving Cavaliers

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Dion Waiters returns to Cleveland for the first time, and LeBron makes his only appearance against the Thunder.

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Dion Waiters appeared to be undergoing a bit of a renaissance just a week ago. As of last Sunday, Waiters had scored 15 points on four consecutive nights, posted a ton of steals, and seemed to be the answer to the Thunder's problems. But over the past week, Waiters has posted three straight sub-40% nights. It appears OKC fans might be in for a roller coaster ride when it comes to Dion, and Cleveland fans know that ride quite well. The first one and a half rocky seasons of Waiters' career took place in Ohio, and tonight will be his only return there this season.

Will Cleveland fans boo? According to Mike Mayer of Fear the Sword, most of the Waiters hate came from outside:

Through his two plus seasons in Cleveland, no player was more controversial than Waiters. Most non-Cavs fans thought he was a selfish wasted talent. Most of us thought he was a valuable young player who was very close to figuring it out. Now, we'll have to find out who was right while he plays for another team.

In many ways, the decision to draft Waiters in 2012 became a referendum on Chris Grant's entire tenure as General Manager. Detractors will forever believe that he blew that pick, especially because Damian Lillard and Andre Drummond were still on the board, and that by doing so he set the franchise back a couple of years. Defenders will contend that Waiters was probably the most talented player on the board at that point, and it is the job of the coach, not the General Manager, to utilize a player's talent appropriately.

Waiters is really a unique case. He's a talented player that could be a serious part of any team's plans down the road. But the Cavs didn't think he was good enough to keep. Cleveland wants to win right away, and Waiters simply isn't an efficient player from night to night. Moreover, Waiters' isolated style of offense didn't exactly mesh with what Cleveland was trying to do. So Waiters left for pennies on the dollar, with J.R. Smith taking his place.

Smith is a familiar face to Oklahoma City fans, who witnessed him play for a young Hornets team in 2005-2006. Back then, J.R. was the same player as he is now. He obviously possessed the talent necessary to take over games offensively, but constantly feuded with coach Byron Scott. It's always seemed that off-court issues have held Smith's career back, and he's struggled for years on less than stellar teams. But this year represents the first time that J.R. Smith has been able to play on an elite team, and he's absolutely blossomed. Discounting J.R.'s first game, he's shooting 45% from the field and 42% from three since joining Cleveland. And did I mention his average of 1.8 steals?

The success of J.R. Smith has definitely translated to wins for the Cavaliers. After a disastrous 1-9 stretch, Cleveland has completely rebounded and won 5 straight. I mean, sure. LeBron was out for all but two of those losses. But no one can deny that Smith has raised Cleveland's overall level of play.

Moving on to tonight, the Thunder have already managed to beat the Cavs once this season. That December 11th game saw the Cavs play without LeBron. OKC had a full roster for that game, and managed to win rather comfortably. It's worth noting that the Thunder were able to contain Love and Irving fairly well, despite the fact that both have had great nights against OKC in the past.

But really, there's not much you can glean from that game. I'd argue it's more useful to take a look at Cleveland's more recent results. In Cleveland's blowout win against the Bulls on January 19th, the Cavs were able to rely on the defense of Timofey Mozgov and Kyrie Irving to pull them through. But in a close game against the Clippers, Cleveland struggled to contain Blake Griffin on the pick and roll. Furthermore, Cleveland suffered from serious turnover issues in both games.

It might seem silly to look to wins for ways to beat Cleveland, but the Cavaliers are a team that's still evolving, much as the Thunder are. This year's NBA has no teams that are established as better than everybody else, and the top 10 or so are constantly trying to figure out ways to get slight edges over each other. Both the Cavs and the Thunder have seen serious roster and rotation turnover this season, so we're only beginning to see how these teams will perform come playoff time.

Thus, I'd argue that the Thunder should look to pressure all that they can tonight, and roll with the punches that Cleveland's secondary weapons will throw at you. The Cavs certainly aren't the Hawks when it comes to ball movement, so I think that the Thunder are perfectly capable of disrupting things. I also don't think that the Cavaliers will have any real answer for Russell Westbrook, despite the fact that Lebron will go tete-a-tete with KD. Lastly, I think that the Thunder have done a much better job of running plays and moving the ball down the stretch as of late. That should pay off tonight.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 105, Cleveland Cavaliers 100.

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

2014-15 NBA Season Game 44
(Lost 1)

(Won 5)
January 25th, 2015
Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, Ohio
2:30 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Your local American Broadcasting Company Affiliate (KOCO 5 in Oklahoma City)
Injury Report:  Mitch McGary, Anderson Varejao (Out)
This Season's Matchups: Dec 11 (W 103-94)
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Kyrie Irving
Andre Roberson SG J.R. Smith
Kevin Durant SF LeBron James
Serge Ibaka PF Kevin Love
Steven Adams C Timofey Mozgov