Where They At: Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder coughed up a painful loss at home to the Pacers on Friday, giving Monta Ellis all the daylight he needed for three after three in the closing minutes. While late game execution is always picked at in Thunder losses, this was the rare game where poor offensive production was actually an overarching factor in getting the L.
It was a familiar formula: let the opponent stay close enough to have a puncher's chance, and then give them a free punch. Leaks in perimeter defense and the second unit were familiar variables, but that's nothing new. The Thunder are not going to morph into a 66-win team with no lapses this season; the only thing left to learn about them is how they match up with the kind of contenders they'll see in the playoffs, and Sunday offers one of the many tests of that they'll have the rest of the way.
Where They At: Cleveland Cavaliers
Since the Thunder last played the Cavaliers, things have changed. The Cavs are undergoing a makeover with new coach Tyronn Lue, but have been getting about the same (very good) bottom line in results from him over his first 12 games in charge. The Cavs have continued to win about 75% of their games to pace the East, but they've done it with a different style of play of late.
After demanding better conditioning and faster pace from his players, Lue has goosed the team to a league average 98.24 possessions per minute over their last six, up from the third slowest pace (95.24) they've averaged all year. Kevin Love, LeBron James' latest overqualified third wheel, has faced scrutiny over his counting stats and vine-able defensive lapses, but guess what? He's still a great, heady player making the most of his undersized role and helping Cleveland kill its opponents when he's on the floor. He has been utilized less of late, but that's mainly due to a banged up shoulder he's nursing.
Trade deadline deals are not overhyped, and this game, and maybe even this year's championship, will be decided by a Randy Foye vs. Channing Frye one-on-one possession. In all seriousness, I expect to see Foye for the first time since Andre Roberson remains sidelined and the reserves remain a hot mess. Billy Donovan will be watching along with Thunder fans to see if Foye's stinker season in Denver can turn around for a better team, with special attention paid to his 3 and his D, the two characters that other Thunder shooting guards treat like oil and water.
The Cavaliers won the last matchup by grinding the game down to an 88.5 pace and holding every Thunder outside of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka (each had 23+ points) below 7 points on the night. The Thunder have been slowed to a 97.1 or less pace in 10 of their 15 losses, so it will be interesting to see if the Cavs keep pushing the gas for their reinvented offense or play red light/yellow light to counter the offensive might of the Thunder. I see the former, and the Thunder avoiding a second-straight home loss with some rediscovered offensive fire.
Prediction: Thunder 113 Cavs 107
|2015-16 NBA Season Game #|
|February 21st, 2015|
|Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City|
|2:30 PM Central Standard Time|
|Injury Report: Andre Roberson (Out), Channing Frye (Out), Joe Harris (Out), Iman Shumpert (Doubtful)|
|This Season's Matchups: Dec. 17 (L 100-104)|
|Kyrie Irving||PG||Russell Westbrook|
|J.R. Smith||SG||Dion Waiters|
|LeBron James||SF||Kevin Durant|
|Kevin Love||PF||Serge Ibaka|
|Tristan Thompson||C||Steven Adams|