Through the first quarter of the NBA season, four teams have separated themselves from the pack in terms of contending for a title - the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. Whenever two of those teams meet in the regular season, it’s worth stopping down and seeing what we can learn about both. The Cavs beat the Thunder 104-100 on Thursday in a game that was full of fascinating subplots.
1) A win for Cleveland’s perimeter depth
With Kyrie Irving, Iman Shumpert and Mo Williams out the line-up, Cleveland had to dig a little deeper into their bench on Thursday and they got just enough from Matthew Dellavedova, Richard Jefferson and Jared Cunningham to pull out the win. Dellavedova was outmatched on Russell Westbrook but he hit some key spot-up 3’s and had great chemistry on the pick-and-roll with the Cavs big men while Jefferson and Cunningham gave Cleveland a better combination of 3-and-D play than what Oklahoma City got from Dion Waiters, DJ Augustin, Kyle Singler and Andre Roberson.
2) LeBron James taking time off on defense
One smart thing that Cleveland is doing to minimize some of the wear-and-tear on their best player’s legs is hiding him on defense and he didn’t take the assignment on Kevin Durant until well into the fourth quarter. While Durant guarded LeBron for most of the night, JR Smith and Richard Jefferson each took turns on Durant, which shows you the value Shumpert provides to the Cavs in terms of being another perimeter defender. Utilizing LeBron more on defense is a switch that David Blatt can flip in the playoffs and that will be a hidden benefit of a healthy Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
3) Cleveland wins brief four-out interlude
Both coaches stayed big for most of the game, which makes sense when you consider the massive amounts of money their team invested in traditional big men. The result was a game without a lot of free-flowing action as guys like Timofey Mozgov, Steven Adams, Nick Collison and Anderson Varejao clogged up the paint. It’s hard to believe those guys would get a ton of time in a playoff series between these two teams since both coaches could go small against them with relative impunity. LeBron had the edge on Durant in the brief stretch when both were playing as a PF, a match-up you would probably see a lot more of in an NBA Finals.
4) Why doesn’t OKC stagger Durant and Westbrook’s minutes?
The Thunder lost control of the game in the first few minutes of the fourth quarter when neither Durant nor Westbrook was on the floor. You could see it in the plus/minus numbers of Dion Waiters (-11) and Enes Kanter (-10) who were being asked to carry the offense without either of the Thunder’s two superstars. It really makes no sense when you consider that Durant and Westbrook spend so much of the game playing 1-on-1 anyway so the benefit of having them both on the floor for the same time doesn’t nearly outweigh the costs of having neither of them out there, especially when you have to watch Waiters taking step-back jumpers off the dribble. That’s something that Billy Donovan will have to learn from David Blatt, who always had either LeBron or Love in the game. That kind of smart staggering is what allowed LeBron to have multiple possessions with Kyle Singler on him instead of either Durant or Andre Roberson.
5) Serge Ibaka locked up Kevin Love
Love had only 11 points on 10 shots because Ibaka is a nightmare match-up for him - he is bigger, stronger and longer than so there’s no obvious way for Love to create his own shot against him. He can’t pin Ibaka under the basket and he can’t shoot over the top of him in the post and it’s hard for him to create separation on the perimeter to get a clean look from the three-point line. Cleveland made a smart adjustment in the second half by utilizing Love more in the two-man game, which negated some of Ibaka’s defensive edge.
6) Love and Kanter’s two-man defense
Ibaka went off on Thursday (23 points on 14 shots and a team-high +10 rating) in large part because Love is pretty helpless when asked to defend while moving laterally. He has to give up something and he often gives up everything, whether it’s the jumper or the drive for the guard or the jumper and the roll for the big man. That’s something to watch for both these teams in that they have invested huge sums of money in lead-footed offensive-minded big men in Love and Kanter and it’s unclear how much those guys will be able to stay on the floor against elite competition because of the way they can be attacked in space.
7) The Dion Waiters experiment
It’s hard to watch these two teams play and not wonder how Oklahoma City wound up with Waiters while Cleveland wound up with Smith and Shumpert in their three-team trade with New York City even though the Thunder were the ones who gave up a first-round pick. Was Oklahoma City worried about paying Smith and Shumpert in the offseason? Shumpert, in particular, would have been a perfect fit as the 3-and-D SG that the Thunder have never been able to put around their Big Three. Whatever Waiters was doing out there on Thursday, you definitely couldn’t call it a revenge game.
8) Thompson outworked Adams and Kanter
Oklahoma City was playing the second night of a back-to-back so it’s hard to knock their effort level too much but their two young big men got badly outworked on the glass. These are big and mobile 7’0 and there’s no excuse for them not putting a body on Thompson and preventing him from getting an eye-popping 11 offensive rebounds, especially when the Thunder were playing with two big men on the floor for most of the night. Adams and Kanter combined for three offensive boards and OKC needs those guys generating extra possessions if they aren’t going to be too involved in the offense.
9) Will OKC make a trade?
The Thunder have two very interesting young players who have no real path to getting minutes this season in Mitch McGary and Cameron Payne. McGary showed flashes of high-level ability as a rookie while Payne is a lottery pick with a lot of fans around the league. Those two could be the foundation of a package that could get OKC a really good player at the deadline. One thing to watch is if Memphis becomes a seller and makes Courtney Lee available because that’s a trade that would make sense for both teams.
10) A path to the Finals
The biggest difference between these two teams going forward is that Cleveland would only need to beat one of the other elite teams in the NBA to win a title while Oklahoma City would have to beat all three. The biggest plus for Golden State about their hot start is ensuring a potential series on the other side of the bracket between the Thunder and the Spurs, which would be one of the most anticipated second round series in a very long time.
If OKC can get past their longtime nemesis, they would still have to go through a potential 70+ win team in the Conference Finals and a relatively well-rested LeBron James in the NBA Finals. That’s why I think they have to be very aggressive when it comes to making a trade because there are obvious holes on this roster and they are going to have to play nearly perfect basketball for three straight series if they are going to win a title before Durant hits unrestricted free agency.