Thunder (17-8, 5-5 road) vs. Cavaliers (16-7, 10-1 home)
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1 FM, 640 AM, 1300 AM The Buzz Tulsa)
Time: 7:00 PM CST
Team Comparisons (per NBA.com/Stats)
- Offensive Rating: Thunder – 107.6 (2nd), Cavaliers – 104.6 (4th)
Defensive Rating: Thunder – 99.5 (10th), Cavaliers – 99.3 (8th)
In the NBA, dream match-ups always sell, especially if they are potential Finals match-ups. In the mid to late 2000s, the match-up everyone wanted to see was LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant. An NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers/Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers would have shattered any previous record for NBA Finals viewership. Unfortunately, that Finals match-up never came to fruition.
In the early 2010s, the match-up the populace craved for was Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James. And they got it in the 2012 NBA Finals. The only problem was that James was a grizzled veteran by then, while Durant and company were still the baby-faced assassins from the West. Experience trumped naivety, and the Heat won the series 4-1. Everybody figured this would an every June affair for the next 5 years. Instead, OKC suffered injury and untimely injury, and never made it back to the Finals.
The match-up everyone anticipates now is LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry. They got that match-up last season in the Finals, but that Cavaliers team was a shell of itself after Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love suffered injuries in the playoffs that kept them out for most or all of the Finals. But the match-up that is still there for the taking is Thunder vs. Cavs: KD vs. LeBron, Westbrook vs. (a healthy) Irving, Ibaka vs. Love, Adams vs. Mozgov, Kanter vs. Thompson, Waiters vs. Smith. It’s a series that is just dripping with narratives. A series that is a very distinct possibility if everything breaks right for both teams come late May/early June. And a series that fans would eat up, likely setting viewership records, and finally dispelling any myth that you need a big market team in the Finals to be successful.
This is the first of two meetings this season between these two conference powerhouses. The teams split their season series last year, with the victor doing so on their home floor. The series felt incomplete, as James sat out the game in Oklahoma City with an injury, while Durant did the same thing during the Thunder’s visit to Cleveland.The Opponent
Cleveland comes into this game with a 16-7 record, having won their last 3 games. They remain the conference powerhouse in a conference that is rapidly becoming more competitive than it has been in the previous 5 seasons. Even with Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert missing most of the first quarter of the season, the Cavaliers have stayed atop the fray in the East, holding off fellow Central Division teams, Chicago and Indiana. Cleveland remains one of the top teams by virtue of their efficiency on both ends of the court.
LeBron James is quietly having a great season. He is averaging 26.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 6.3 assists, and 1.5 steals. Only someone like James can have a season like that and it be hardly spoken about in the media. Everyone seems to say that Kevin Love has finally found his niche on this team this season, but I see no difference in his numbers between the two seasons. The only difference is the lack of Kyrie Irving, which necessitates the need for Love to take more responsibility on the offensive end. Mo Williams has been a good substitute teacher for Irving. Doesn’t give you the same production, but isn’t too much of a liability either. At this point in his career, JR Smith is what he is: a player that can shoot you into games as much as he can shoot you out of games. Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson seem to have regressed in their development. Matthew Dellavedova continues to be the East’s version of Patrick Beverly.3 Big Things
Cleveland is ranked 8th in the league in total rebounds per game at 45.1 per game, while Oklahoma City ranks 2nd at 48.0 boards per game. Controlling the offensive glass will be extremely important for both teams. Second chance points may be the difference in who comes out the victor in this game.
2. Who Guards LeBron?
The obvious answer is Durant, but whenever LeBron matches up with Durant, he usually bulls his way to the rim, causing Durant to foul him. LeBron is one of the most intelligent players in basketball and will find the advantage against the player guarding him. Against Durant, its his head on strength. Andre Roberson is another option, but much like Durant, LeBron has a size advantage on Roberson. Serge Ibaka is too slow and Westbrook and Waiters are too small. So, of course, the obvious answer is Perr…. oh wait. If I were Billy Donovan, I would throw a monkey wrench in every scouting report and activate Josh Huestis for this game. And then trot him out there to begin the 2nd half.
3. Perimeter Defense
It seems like anytime we play a LeBron-featured team, it isn’t necessarily LeBron that beats us. Its the open 3-point shooters from all the attention LeBron generates that beat us. The Cavs feature 6 rotation players that are shooting at least 35% from deep. If the Thunder can keep one guy on LeBron and stay at home on the shooters, then Cleveland’s offense becomes very one sided. But as soon as guys start to switch and rotate, the Cavs do a good job of finding the open shooters.Slump-Buster (Opposing player most likely to break out against the Thunder)JR Smith –
Even though Smith is shooting 36.4% from deep, he is shooting just 39.6% from everywhere else. Smith used to be great at finishing at the rim, but seems to be settling too much for the jumper. But JR is JR. He could go 5/8 from deep, just like he could go 1/6. Regardless, he definitely has slump-buster potential, especially against the Thunder.