In what was perhaps the worst loss of this season to a championship-level team, the Oklahoma City Thunder were absolutely eradicated by the Cleveland Cavaliers, 92-115. The game was competitive up until mid-way through the third quarter. At that point, the Cavaliers went on a 29-7 run over the course of seven minutes. Adding onto an already existing four point lead, this left the Cavaliers up by 26 points with about a minute to go in the third. It would have taken an absolute miracle for the Thunder to catch up beyond that point.
Cleveland lost Kyrie Irving to injury towards the end of the first quarter. This would seem particularly devastating for two reasons. For one, Irving is the Cavs' second best scorer and ballhandler. For two, the Cavaliers were already without second string point guard Mo Williams. This left Cleveland with only Dellavedova at point guard.
But the Cavaliers came out of that sticky situation looking like royalty. LeBron led the effort, scoring 25 points on 11-22 shooting and dishing 11 assists. Kevin Durant had LeBron on assignment for the entire game, and was actually really effective when he wanted to be. As long as KD faught over screens and kept his body between LeBron and the basket, there was no way for LeBron to score. But when LeBron got a mismatch around a screen, it was over. No other Thunder defender had the combination of size or speed necessary to deal with LeBron.
Sure, sometimes the Thunder would try to double-team LeBron. But that's why LeBron had 11 assists. LeBron has a knack for finding the open man, and would make skilled cross court passes to Richard Jefferson and J.R. Smith in the corners. LeBron was effective at post ups as well, sometimes drawing two guys in the post just to dish to the open man.
The real problem on the Thunder's end was a complete lack of commitment on defense. It's fine to change the pick and roll coverage occasionally. But it felt like the Thunder weren't trying to win possessions. OKC was playing it conservatively, trying to get Cleveland into low percentage shots. But this Cleveland team is full of veterans than can produce when called upon, so they need to be forced out of their comfort zone.
The Anatomy of a game-destroying Cavalier run
The Cavaliers 29-7 run during the latter part of the third quarter was a real whirlwind. Because the Cavaliers were in the bonus, they were at a real advantage. This allowed the Cavs to get to the line 5 times, for 10 shots. Unbelievably, the Cavs shot 10/10. Another factor that was in the Cavs favor was the pace of the game. The Cavaliers were constantly going to the line or getting transition opportunities, while the Thunder almost always had to start their offense in a half-court set.
Of course, that's not to say this run wasn't the Thunder's own fault. They put themselves in that position by committing four early fouls. Three were easily preventable, with all of them coming on rebounds. Westbrook committed two, and Adams committed one.
But I wanted to take a closer look at this run, just to illustrate where the Thunder's problems lie.
- The run started with, of all things, a Dellovadova floater around a screen. Kind of a low percentage look. On the other end, Serge Ibaka tried to post up his man and score. The shot missed, and Adams committed a foul on the ensuing offensive rebound. The Cavaliers were in the bonus, so Thompson went to the line and sank two. Cavaliers up 8.
- KD loses the ball to LeBron around a screen, and fouls Kevin Love before anything else can happen. Kevin love sinks the bonus free throws. Cavs up 10.
- Westbrook tries the pick and pop with Ibaka. J.R. Smith nearly steals the ball while switching onto Ibaka. This forces Ibaka to reset and throw the ball to Waiters, the emergency option. Waiters drives, gets past the defense, and blows an out of control, yet open layup. LeBron gets the rebound to J.R. Smith, who splashes the transition three. Cavs up 13.
- KD isolates against LeBron. The fadeaway jumper misses. Ibaka gets the offensive rebound, sets himself up for a pick and pop. Clank. LeBron posts up Waiters, draws two, and kicks to Love. Love misses the contested three. Kanter committed to the LeBron defense, leaving Thompson open for the offensive board. Thompson kicks to J.R. Smith, who misses a three that was well-guarded by Ibaka. But this leaves KD mismatched with Love in the paint. Love grabs the oboard and puts it in. Cavs up 15.
- At this point, OKC and Cleveland trade a couple of baskets. On OKC's side, a Westbrook-Kanter pick and roll worked, and KD hit a ridiculously deep three. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers had J.R. smith do a ridiculous spin dribble three that went in right over Dion Waiters. Then, Dellavadova exploited Kanter in the pick and roll, finding Thompson. Cavs still up 15.
- Waiters clanks a wide open three. OKC gets another chance when Kanter intercepts a post pass, but Waiters travels in transition. The Cavs get the ball, and KD fouls Love while trying to get through a screen. Love sinks the bonus free throws. Cavs up 17.
- Waiters attempts to redeem himself, driving and kicking to KD for three. But KD misses the open corner attempt. LeBron gets a mismatch with Ibaka on the next possession, and uses his quickness to fade and score. Cavs up 19.
- Westbrook recklessly posts up Jefferson, and uses his strength to burst through to the rim and score. But before any good can come of it, Ibaka fouls Love off the ball around a screen. Love sinks the bonus FT. Cavs still up 19.
- KD ISOs Jefferson, but misses the dirk leg fadeaway. Westbrook gets the board and runs to the rim on LeBron, but the layup won't bounce in. LeBron gets a mismatch with Ibaka again, and uses a screen to get an open off the dribble three. Cavs up 22.
- The next Thunder play was a KD-Kanter pick and roll. But Kanter, with a complete lack of vision, stampeded over Kevin Love. Offensive foul, turnover. Kevin Love gets a mismatch with KD around a simple screen, and uses his post hook to score. Cavs up 24.
- KD attempts an isolation three on Jefferson. Miss. Kanter shoves Thompson in the face on the offensive rebound. Thompson sinks the bonus FT. Cavs up 26.
The main takeaway from that is how simplistic both team's offenses were. It's not like either of these teams ran anything close to what Golden State or San Antonio might run. But the Thunder were switching around every single screen, and this allowed the Cavaliers to use LeBron and Love to exploit mismatches. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers were using a third man to hedge the pick and roll to protect the basket. That strategy worked, because Dion Waiters wasn't a threat from the corner three tonight. Also, the Cavaliers would do their best to fight around screens more often, giving them better defensive advantages.
Furthermore, I think the Thunder need to make more effort to move the ball. It doesn't need to be complex, but there needs to be more than 1-2 passes on every possession. I don't know of a single possession during that entire run where the ball moved between more than three players. By the end of it, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were taking vacations on separate parts of Dion Waiters Island. That is to say, there was no teamwork at all.
Garbage time fire from the bench?
After the Thunder were summarily smashed, a strange thing happened. OKC's bench entered the game, and actually generated a bit of positive momentum. At one point, the Cavalier lead was down to 17. That might not seem like much. But for a bench unit that we've been slamming all year, it almost seems like progress. Mostly, it was just Payne and Collison working together in the pick and roll. Payne running around a screen seems to be the basis for bench offense, and it's rare to see a play start otherwise. Usually, the defense leave space for Payne, he shoots, and he's okay. Otherwise the ball moves to the roll man or whomever might be open.
The bench defense was surprisingly solid as well. With Collison and Adams in the paint, the Cavs were forced to miss a few jumpshots. But you could tell that the motivation just wasn't there in the end. There was no hustle to get around screens, and the Cavaliers used mismatches until there was no time left.
Durant and Westbrook actually weren't terrible
This is another one of those games where I have an extremely hard time blaming Westbrook. 20 points on 7 of 15 shooting, 8 rebounds, 11 assists, no turnovers. There were lots of little things Westbrook did that I loved tonight. Stuff like hitting a stepback three. Getting Ibaka involved in the pick and roll again. Setting up Adams for four straight scores in the first quarter. Of course, there was the traditional stock of reckless runs to the rim, aggressive post ups, and pick play. No mid-range face-ups tonight, unfortunately. On defense, I felt Westbrook did all he could to limit Dellavadova and Irving, who finished the game a combined 1 of 8.
Kevin Durant had a solid effort too. 26 points on 10 of 21 shooting, and lots of LeBron stops. But KD's points were very technical tonight. There's simply no way Durant has the ball skills to counter Lebron directly. So you saw a lot of off-ball movement, along with a lot of transition play. Most of KD's success came when he could catch the defense by surprise, rather than him forcing the issue. Whenever KD did go into post-ups with LeBron, things generally didn't turn out too well. I would have liked to see a few more high screens for KD though, just so he'd get a chance to handle the ball. 3 assists it just too low.
I know it's seems weird for me to praise Durant and Westbrook, especially after lambasting them for their self-centered play during the Thunder run. Honestly, I don't think it's a flaw in the way they played their games. I think it was a flaw in the team's defensive gameplan, as I outlined above.
- Serge Ibaka was a defensive sieve. I never thought I'd type that, but it's true tonight. Not because Ibaka didn't give his usual effort, or apply his years of knowledge and experience to the defensive game. But because Ibaka kept getting caught in mismatches, he kept getting exploited. Even Ibaka's natural matchup, Kevin Love, had his way with Serge tonight. Love was able to post up Ibaka a couple of times for scores, and was dominant on the board. Offensively, Ibaka was his usual self, if a bit quick on the trigger.
- One more note though. Ibaka faded in the second half again, shooting only 1 of 5 in the third quarter. Also, no attempts in the paint in the third, while four attempts were made in the paint in the second. Ibaka's gotta be more aggressive, because he's a critical part of our offense. Whether he likes it or not!
- Steven Adams started off really strong, using his superior size and strength to get 9 points on Tristan Thompson. One of the attempts was a flip shot from the free throw line that looked particularly impressive. But the Cavaliers made a concerted effort to protect the rim in the second and third quarters, keeping Adams off of the score books for the rest of the night. On the defensive end, I felt like Adams was just as ineffective as Ibaka. Around LeBron's screens, I'd always see Adams hang low to protect the rim. But Adams would often hang too low, and allow his roll man to get past him. In the future, particularly against this Cavs team, I'd like to see Adams try to make some more outside pressure.
- Randy Foye is a gunner. If Foye sees a shot that he likes, the ball's gonna go up. Expect lots of quick-dribble stuff from him. This is particularly true in transition. Strangely enough, Foye didn't take a shot until garbage time, mostly due to a lack of opportunity. Foye's defense in the regular game was acceptable. I saw Foye deter two J.R. Smith jumpers, which Waiters didn't do much of. But I also saw Foye get caught ballwatching, nearly commit a three shot foul, and get blown past on a LeBron screen twice. I'm used to watching Fisher, Augustin, Morrow, and Butler though. So Foye's defense is definitely a step up from those guys.
- Enes Kanter gets a big meh from me tonight. There were defensive problems in the pick and roll, as usual. And Kanter was only able to get positioning down low a couple of times. The couple jumpers Kanter took were too rushed, and led to fast breaks on the other end.
- Cameron Payne continues to take what he's given, and I don't have problems with any of the shots he took. I kinda wish he could get to his floater more often though.
- Nick Collison was a total trooper. Two scores tonight, one on a flip shot and one on an oboard dunk. Collison also stopped LeBron and Love once each, along with setting a screen for a KD three.
- Anthony Morrow couldn't get anything going from behind the arc, but never really got any super-open attempts. Nice job inside the arc though, where Morrow was able to get his signature off the dribble quick jumpers.
- Kyle Singler kinda had a steal, missed a three.
- Mitch McGary came in late, tossed an assist to Foye. That was a combo I didn't think I'd ever see
- Donovan went with the twin towers lineup at one point, and also with the dual point guard lineup. Other than that, it stayed pretty traditional, with Adams or Kanter at C and Ibaka or Collison at PF. Neither lineup really seemed to do a whole lot.
- If Durant and Westbrook went the distance tonight, the minutes would have been way too much.
- Roberson was in uniform tonight, but did not play. Perhaps soon?
- Bottom line for me tonight? I feel like the Thunder could have won this game, if they had just found a way to power through all the confusion they encountered in the third. I'm disappointed in how OKC responded, but this is mid-season. How OKC continues to push through this next slog of games will be their true test of character.
Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, there is no other
Thunder Down Under: Kevin Durant, who should have just let Westbrook take all the shots and focused on guarding LeBron :-P
Thunder Blunder: Dion Waiters, who's due for a 20 points game any time now
Thunder Plunderer: Lebron James, mental mismatch master
Next Game: At the Dallas Mavericks, Wednesday, February 24th, 7:30 PM Central Standard Time.
What did you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!