Despite the day-long dialogue on the ethics of sitting star players–a report saying that LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love would sit out had circulated earlier–Cleveland’s big three played, and it seemed as if the prior beatdown the Thunder took at the Cavs’ hands would play itself out again.
Russell Westbrook had a thing or two to say about that narrative. Russ notched his 26th triple-double of the season, scoring 29 points, grabbing 12 rebounds, and dishing 11 assists en route to a 118-109 victory over the defending champions. All indications seemed to point toward the big three not playing, but Billy Donovan’s squad prepared the same way they do for every game:
“There was a lot of drama going on before the game,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “Who’s playing? Who’s not playing. They’re in. They’re out. They may play. It looks like they’re going to play. I just really told our guys, even in shootaround this morning, it’s about what we need to do and we need to understand personnel like we do for every scout.”
Watch the full highlights below:
Credit: NBA Conference
The Cavaliers are clearly the better team (at least on paper), and would beat the Thunder a good seven or eight times out of ten. However, Cleveland was coming off of a road-road back to back, and had played four games in six nights. The Thunder have also struggled in similar situations this season. Impressively, the Cavs still went 3-1 in that stretch:
“We would have loved to be 4-0, but coming off a back-to-back, you know they gave us everything they had,” LeBron James said. “We go home extremely proud of what we did on this road trip.”
The Cavaliers had a legitimate shot to steal this one from the Thunder after losing for the better part of the game despite their fatigue. With a little over five minutes remaining, Westbrook checked back in and hit a trio of jump shots to trigger a 12-2 run to close out the Cavs.
“They like to pack the paint, especially against me. That shot is usually open most of the time,” Westbrook said. “It’s being able to be on balance, take it and knock it down.”
The Thunder are one of the most effective clutch time teams in the league, ranking fourth in offensive rating (116.5), first in defensive rating (85.9), and first in net rating (30.6). Their late game offense has been sublime, and the defense stifling. A lot of credit will go to Russell Westbrook for that, but that kind of defensive efficiency is a team-wide effort.
Of special note against the Cavaliers was the Thunder’s bench mob, who were able to maintain and even push leads at times. Cam Payne played his best game of the season with 15 points and three assists.
“When he plays without thinking too much, he plays great,” Westbrook said about Payne. “I’m always happy to see a teammate do well, whether it’s Cam or anybody else.”
Victor Oladipo finished the game with 23 points, seven rebounds, three assists, and one spectacular 360 layup to give Russ the triple-double. Steven Adams loomed large (quite literally) in the pick-n’-roll game, finishing with 20 points, 13 rebounds, and two blocks.
LeBron James was as much of non-factor as is possible with him, scoring 18 points, grabbing five boards, and seven assists. Kyrie Irving led the way for the Cavaliers with 28 points and four assists.
The Thunder improve to 31-23, while the Cavaliers fall to 36-16. The Thunder square up against the Warriors in Kevin Durant’s return to OKC on Saturday night at 7:30.