Cavs Quiet Thunder, Continue Rounding Into a Juggernaut

In a measure of how far we’ve come the last three weeks, the Cavaliers beat one of the West’s best teams, at full strength, without playing a particularly great offensive game or forcing a lot of turnovers. That’s a testament to how good this reshuffled lineup is.

They did it the same way they’ve won their last few – with scrappy position defense and hard rebounding. Of course, if you’re going to shoot 44% for the game, it doesn’t hurt if you shoot 44% from 3 as well. That covers for a lot of sins (especially when 36 of your 82 shots are from long range).

They played a lot of one-on-one (notably LeBron James, whom the Thunder had no answer for), but they also ran some offense, and just when you thought they might’ve completely forgotten about Kevin Love, they found him for 13 second half points, to go with a yeoman-like 13-rebound performance.

LeBron’s favorite new playmate, Timofey Mozgov got into early foul trouble, which opened the door for Tristan Thompson to put on a terrific performance. Thompson grabbed 16 rebounds (5 offensive), scored 10 points, blocked three shots, and posted an absurd +22 in 30 minutes.

Indeed, it was the fine play of the bench that made the difference in the game. Shawn Marion (+13 in 7 minutes) and Iman Shumpert (+16 in 14 min.) keyed a second unit that has been doing very well of late. Blatt made an adjustment several games ago, sitting LeBron with a few minutes to play in the first, and bringing him to lead the second squad to open the second period. They’ve really outmatched every bench they’ve faced since the King’s return six games ago.

Yesterday the bench helped turn a 6-point Thunder lead at the end of one into an 8-point Cavaliers halftime lead. The offense wasn’t particularly smooth, and the Cavs shot 29% in the first including a Waiters-esque 1-6 from J.R. Smith. Fortunately, the Thunder started awfully as well, missing their first 9 shots. Mozgov played a role, twice blocking Westbrook’s forays into the lane.

The Thunder had a nasty 15-4 run as they dropped six straight hoops to take a 22-15 lead. Blatt called a timeout and in came Thompson and Marion, who stemmed the tide.

Then a moment later J.R. Smith gets caught challenging Waiters WAY further from the basket than anyone should a guy with such a good handle and mediocre pull-up jumper skill. An Adams pick gives Waiters an open look.

They’d score the last 7 points of the run on transition jumpers/trailers, prompting another Blatt timeout. After that the defense tightened significantly. The Thunder would shoot 28-73 (38%) the rest of the way. It’s to the Cavaliers credit that these defensive lapses have become much shorter-lived the last couple weeks.

The Cavaliers scored 37 points in the second quarter, shot 57%, committed only 2 turnovers and made all seven of their free throws (courtesy of James). A bad quarter won’t ever stop Smith from shooting, and he made 2 of 3 from beyond the arc. Kyrie added 7, Thompson had two buckets and Shumpert drained a 3 as well, providing LeBron his first assist of the night.

But the quarter was ruled by LeBron who went up against Kevin Durant on several occasions and outscored the lean Thunder star 15-10 in the quarter. He just took over, and his ball dominant ways are how they could get 13 hoops and only 4 assists. But who’s complaining when LeBron is so forceful on offense. It’s a marked difference from his frequent lapses of aggression prior to his two week R&R.

In the third quarter, LeBron completely deferred, doing a 180 from the second quarter and taking only 1 shot. Instead, Kyrie made his presence felt with four hoops, four assists and a steal. Among his plays was this beautiful step-back jumper

Kyrie started driving and found Love on several occasions on dishes from inside the lane. Love took an offensive foul from Perkins and drilled several threes on catch & shoot opportunities,

They struggled at times to contain Westbrook in the third period, as he got loose for four hoops and 11 points while dishing out 4 assists. A eight-point run in the final 75 seconds including the last of those Love 3s, a Matthew Dellavedova 3 and a buzzer-beating Irving jumper gave the Cavs a five point lead at the end of the third and the Thunder would never get closer.

LeBron James opened the quarter by outscoring the Thunder 8-2 to push the lead to 11 and it’d remain around there for the rest of the game. It was particularly interesting how James would take over for stretches then defer for others.

Though the offense never had a lot of continuity, they hit the offensive boards, spread the ball around enough when they needed to, and showed the ability to find opportunities for different players to get involved. It was a big night for the Big 3 who combined for 74 points, but the bench came up with 18 as well.

The team allowed 18 fastbreak points (7 of 11), and 44 points in the paint (22-47, 15-47 elsewhere) two things they’ll look to correct going forward. On the positive side, the turnovers are coming down. The Cavs only made 11 turnovers and LeBron only had two for his second consecutive game, after racking up 28 (!?!) his first five games back.

“We have been taking better care of the ball,” said Blatt after the game. “That’s really a key for us because it gives us a chance to set our transition defense.”

Though he didn’t get much chance to show it tonight because of foul trouble, Jim Chones is mighty impressed with Timofey Mozgov. We were concerned about how frequently he’s been stuffed by big guys since coming to the Cavs, but the legendary Cavaliers big man dismissed those concerns calling Mozgov, “the most complete big man the Cavs have had since Brad Daugherty.”

Next stop is Detroit on Tuesday for the first of four-in-five-days. While at home, the back-end is against one of the league’s best, the Portland Trailblazers. The Pistons kicked the Cavs’ ass at home by 23 points December 28, their third game after Varejao’s injury and LeBron’s last before taking two weeks off. (Incidentally, he was 5-19 that game.) The Piston would go on to win nine of their next eleven.

On Saturday, the Pistons lost starting point guard Brandon Jennings to a torn Achilles tendon, the same injury that felled Varejao. Don’t get overconfident, though, because his replacement, journeyman D.J. Augustin, tossed in 35 and had 8 assists in his absence. Former Heat/Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy has them playing very well, as we’ve already seen.

I’ll be tweeting and posting live video from the game on Tuesday. Follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read my game analysis on Wednesday in the Cleveland Scene blog.

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