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Thunder vs. Cavaliers preview: Durant meets LeBron with a winning streak on the line

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A national audience will watch to see if Kevin Durant can eclipse LeBron James, and whether the Thunder can start proving themselves on the road.

Where They At: Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder winning streak hit six games last night in an easy win against the Portland Trail Blazers. While I’m on record for flagging Billy Donavan’s rotation as a long-term concern for a team on its way to winning 60 games regardless, he deserves some credit for the Thunder’s improvement on defense. They’ve gone from being an absolute sieve last season to a blah defense to start 2015-16 to top-5 over their last 14 games.

Where They At: Cleveland Cavaliers

While the 16-7 Cavaliers have a better winning percentage than the Thunder, their effectiveness has been on the decline of late. Their worst rough patch since early last season came in a three-game losing streak bookended by near-losses to the hapless Brooklyn Nets and Blazers. Overall though, they’ve been great without their starting backcourt of Iman Shumpert and Kyrie Irving, who shot down a report of his return to the court tonight.

The confidence from their Finals run and steadying effect of another year with LeBron James is evident. Aside from winning, they’re fine-tuning their lineups to better utilize Kevin Love, who has bounced bad from a funky year to average an 18 and 11 each night. Also, LeBron = still a pretty good ball player.

The Matchup

It’s always exciting to see Kevin Durant and LeBron go head-to-head, even if they don’t wind up guarding each other much in the game. While Durant has always seemed to be on the verge of eclipsing James in the league hierarchy, the King has held firm as a better anchor for a championship contender. Another individual matchup to keep an eye on would be Russell Westbrook vs. Matthew Dellavedova. The physicality and intensity of Westbrook could blow up if infamous fuse-lighter Dellavedova’s antics are on point.

This could be another contest where Donavan pulls out small ball since the Cavs are capable of pushing the Thunder with a big lineup of their own. If Donavan wants to keep Enes Kanter on the defensive recovery wagon, he shouldn’t let the center near particular pick-and-roll players (Delly, Mo Williams) and the on-the-block presence of Timofey Mozgov. I wonder if he’ll make it a point to get Kanter in at more opportune times early, or just ride out another 10-minute-ish game for the max player.

This is a toss-up for me, but the Thunder have still played a home-heavy schedule, and are just .500 on the road. Meanwhile the Cavaliers are 10-1 at home. I think the winning streak ends in Cleveland.

Prediction: Cavaliers 98, Thunder 95

2015-16 NBA Season Game #26
@
17-8
(Won 6)

16-7
(Won 3)
December 17th, 2015
Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: TNT
Injury Report: Kyrie Irving (Out), Iman Shumpert (Out), Mo Williams (Questionable)
This Season's Matchups: N/A
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Matthew Dellavedova
Andre Roberson SG J.R. Smith
Kevin Durant SF LeBron James
Serge Ibaka PF Kevin Love
Steven Adams C Timofey Mozgov