The Oklahoma City Thunder scored a resounding 148-124 victory against LeBron James and the Cavaliers on Saturday afternoon, a fiery offensive explosion that was as dominant as the team has looked all season. For a moment it was easy to forget the Thunder was 25-20 — this team was very clearly elite.
With games like these being scarce so far this season, there were a few more thoughts than what can be crammed into a game recap. Here are five more musings from the Thunder’s most impressive outing yet.
(1) I expect this every time out
I was a terrible math student growing up, routinely heading home with assignments covered in red ink. Then one day — out of complete nowhere, I assure you — I aced a test. I triumphantly pulled it out of my backpack upon walking through the front door, awaiting my mother’s praise and the celebratory trip to Sonic. After reviewing the paper, she looked up and said frankly, “Well I know you can do it now. I expect this every time.”
The Thunder walked into Cleveland with a 5-5 record over the last 10 games and, despite a three-game winning streak, not a great deal of momentum. The Thunder then proceeded to hang 148 on the defending Eastern Conference champions, making it look easy in the process. It was the most points ever given up by a team with LeBron James on it and easily the most the Thunder has scored in a game this season. Even the triple-OT game in Philadelphia featured fewer OKC points (119).
While I’m certainly proud of the effort, I sort of felt like my mother in the afterglow of the Thunder’s win in Cleveland. We’ve all seen how this should look and expect it every time now. The season is 46 games old at this point — you can’t put the cat back in the bag again this time.
(2) Peak OK3
Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony combined to score 88 points on 32/55 (58.2 percent) shooting, piecing together the exact blueprint for what the trio hopes to become in its final form.
George cooked the Cavs to the tune of 36 points and 7 rebounds on 12/19 shooting — finishing as a +29 in 32 minutes. His 19 field goal attempts were the most he’d taken in a single game since the triple-OT game against Philly on December 15 and the most he’d taken in a regulation game since December 1. His biggest problem thus far hasn’t been ability, but rather his ability to stay aggressive. He had no such issue yesterday and should use it as reason to continue.
Melo scored a season-high 29 points on 11/19 shooting and finished as a +22 in just 28 minutes of action. He grabbed 10 rebounds for his fifth double-double of the season (he had seven all of last season in New York) and didn’t have a single turnover. He did take too many in the mid-range, hitting 4/7, but was effective on those attempts for the third-straight game. He’s averaging 25.3 PPG over the last three and continues to look more comfortable in the Thunder offense.
Westbrook finished with 23 points, 20 assists, 9 rebounds, and shot 9/17 from the floor. He went 1/1 from long range, added two steals and wrapped up his night as a +26. He was aggressive out of the gate, using transition to cram it down the throat of the Cleveland defense. As the game progressed, he became more selective — shooting only six times after halftime and deferring to his teammates as they got into rhythm. The Thunder shot 20/34 for 47 points off Westbrook assists, the second-most points he’s ever created in a single game off his passes.
This won’t be an every night occurrence but it’s a great sign for their growth as a trio.
(3) Steven Adams is in Beast Mode
In just 29 minutes of action, Steven Adams finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds on 12/13 shooting. The Thunder went to him early and often, as he scored 10 points on 5/5 shooting in the opening frame. In a game that was built up as a collision of superstars, it was the Thunder’s workmanlike big man that perhaps made the biggest impact. He was a team-best +30 and helped set the tone in a 43-point first quarter.
The Thunder is 6-3 in the new year and Adams is averaging 15.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and shooting 67 percent from the floor. He’s recorded a double-double in each of the four games in this winning streak and leads the NBA in offensive rebounding at five per game. He won’t make the All-Star game but very few big men are impacting their team like he is. His continued development is massive for the OK3 and Thunder as a whole.
(4) There were negatives
There wasn’t a tremendous amount to be upset about after yesterday’s game, but below are a couple items worth mentioning.
A. The defense surrendered 124 points. Oklahoma City allows the third-fewest points per game at 101.3, so the Cavs were well above that mark. Cleveland shot 52 percent from the floor and had three 30+ point quarters. Oklahoma City likely loses this game if those numbers stay the same and the offense doesn’t far outperform itself.
B. OKC shot 18/28 from the free throw line, good for just 64.3 percent. The Thunder remains locked in second-to-last in the league in terms of free throw percentage (70.1 percent) and is in deep trouble come playoffs when games are often decided by razor thin margins.
(5) What happens now matters most
While yesterday’s blowout win was surprising in the way it happened, it’s most interesting because a Thunder triumph wasn’t all that difficult to see coming. This team had wins over Golden State and Houston coming in — getting up for the big ones hasn’t been the issue.
My friend Davis and I were exchanging some texts on Thursday and I actually said, “I fully expect to stomp the Cavs on Saturday and then lose to the Nets on Tuesday.” To which he replied, “Lol Yep!” And that’s the thing — the Thunder only seems to care about reaching its potential when it’s on national television and playing against a marquee opponent. Would it really be that surprising to see the team lay an egg on Tuesday night against Brooklyn?
In order to make wins like yesterday’s meaningful, the Thunder needs to consistently and thoroughly destroy the lesser teams on the schedule. Everyone knows what’s possible now — OKC just hung 148 on the reigning Eastern Conference champions when the entire world was watching. But it’s what teams do in the dark that signifies a real turnaround.
With games against Brooklyn, Washington (2x), Detroit, Philadelphia, Denver, New Orleans and the Lakers preceding a February 6 match-up with KD in Oakland, now is the time to make the power move. If OKC can’t use the momentum of yesterday’s win, the win itself means very little in the grand scheme of things. Stretching this four-game winning streak into something truly impressive is on the table if the Thunder keeps it rolling.