Start time - 7:00 p.m. (CT)
Broadcaster - Bally Sports Oklahoma
Over the last few weeks, there have been murmurings among the fanbase that the fit between Luguentz Dort, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey is not quite right. We have seen Shai play very well when he is orchestrating the offense and the same has happened for Josh. The productivity has not quite been the same in lineups which involve both players.
Thursday night’s performance goes some way to answering those questions. I will be the first to admit that the pairing with Shai and Josh is imperfect at times given their offensive tendencies. Gilgeous-Alexander wants to slow the game down and use his scoring threat to drive the offense forward.
Giddey seemingly prefers to move the ball around decisively and use the ball movement to disorientate the opposing team. Giddey also likes to play at a higher tempo and use his long-range passing to get easy baskets in transition.
The differences in style of play will be addressed over the course of time, they both require minutes next to each other to develop the sort of chemistry that can lead a team deep into the postseason.
There will always be a concern that the fit is not perfect but the perfect fit is difficult to achieve and rarely comes around. To my mind, there are only two examples of a ‘Big Three’ meshing seamlessly. You could argue that the 1996 Chicago Bulls reached that level with Pippen, Jordan and Rodman.
I would argue that their chemistry was not instantaneous. The tension between Michael and Scottie was not always productive during their first run and was only resolved through years of gruelling, difficult playoff battles. Once Jordan realised that he could rely on Scottie implicitly and Pippen realised that he was better as a second banana, the fit vastly improved.
The San Antonio Spurs are often held up as the perfect example of teamwork overcoming individual brilliance. The combination of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker was able to outlast their opponents and maintain a level of excellence over fifteen years that is simply unparalleled.
However, the fit between all three players took years to develop. Coach Pop needed two or three years to refine Tony Parker’s game and mould him into the savvy, slashing point guard who could complement Duncan’s inside scoring.
It is very difficult to say whether Giddey, Shai and Dort fit next to each other after just 40 games. The performance against the Nets was an encouraging indicator that Oklahoma City have three guys who are part of the long-term future of the team.
Oklahoma City’s opponents tonight are one of the great surprises of the 2021-22 NBA season. The Cavs last year were not a good team and many people predicted another difficult year in Cleveland. Nobody thought that Evan Mobley would be this good defensively at such a young age. Nobody expected Darius Garland to take a leap and become one of the best young guards in the Eastern Conference.
Cleveland are confounding expectations and have found success by playing stingy defense. JB Bickerstaff runs a starting lineup with both Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. Lineups with two centers are frowned upon in the modern NBA due to the spacing implications of playing two non-shooters.
Bickerstaff is getting just enough floor spacing from Markkanen and Garland to make the partnership work offensively. The defensive end of the floor is where Cleveland shine. The Cavaliers hold their opponents to just 57.9% on looks within six feet of the rim. Cleveland are first in the league in the metric; they simply do not allow easy scores inside. The team is third in the league in Defensive Rating behind only the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns.
The Cavaliers are light in the playmaking department due to long-term injuries to Ricky Rubio and Collin Sexton. Sexton had surgery on a torn meniscus two months and is not expected to return this season. Rubio, who was having a mid career renaissance, tore his ACL just before the New Year and was ruled out for the season.
The Cavaliers only really have two playmakers on the roster, Garland and Rajon Rondo. The Thunder must attack this weakness and wear Garland down over the course of the game. Darius does not have a reliable backup who can step in and absorb minutes, Bickerstaff will lean on him pretty hard.
I would like to see the Thunder send doubles at Garland and make him chase Shai around on the defensive end of the floor. Gilgeous-Alexander likes to hunt match-ups but it would be beneficial for the team if he focused solely on attacking Garland and tiring him out.
Winning against Cleveland will not be easy but it is possible for the Thunder. The key for winning will be nullifying Garland’s threat as a playmaker and forcing him into taking bad shots. Take out Garland and Cleveland’s offense is destabilised.