LAST TIME OUT
The Cavaliers are coming off a disappointing 99-93 home loss to the Raptors last night. Cleveland held an 89-87 lead with just over three minutes to play, but an 11-2 Raptors run put the game away. The Cavs turned the ball over six times in the final period, including on back-to-back possessions in the final minute. Kyrie Irving led Cleveland with 25 points and nine assists, while Spencer Hawes, making his first start in the wine and gold, contributed 15 points and seven rebounds. Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan killed the Cavs, going for 33 points including 16 in the final stanza.
THIS TIME UP
The Opponent: Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 43-14 overall, 23-5 at home
Tipoff: 8:00 p.m. ET – Chesapeake Energy Arena
Where you can watch: Fox Sports Ohio
Where you can listen: WTAM 1100
Previous Matchup: Cavs 115, Thunder 110 on Feb. 2, 2013
Opponent’s Blog: Thunderous Intentions
Thunder: C-Kendrick Perkins (OUT-groin)
Cavaliers: SG-Dion Waiters (OUT-knee), C-Anderson Varejao (OUT-back), SG-C.J. Miles (OUT-ankle)
Containing Russell Westbrook
It’s a virtual give-in that the league’s leading scorer and MVP front-runner Kevin Durant will get his 30 points. But what the Cavaliers can’t allow is for his running mate to find his rhythm. Westbrook will be playing in his third game since returning from a knee surgery in late December. He struggled in his first two games back, shooting 3-of-11 for 13 points and 3-of-13 for 14 points in the two games respectively in 24.5 minutes per game. He’s turned the ball over seven times compared with just eight assists, clearly rusty after missing 27 games. He’s minutes will be monitored again in this game, but he is well rested and will likely come out to prove he is the better player in this matchup. Westbrook is shooting just 31 percent from deep this season, and a pedestrian 38.6 percent on shots from 16 feet out to the three-point line. Therefore, Irving must fight under every screen to cut off Westbrook who will be looking to drive hard to the rim with the Cavaliers lacking strong interior defense. If Irving doesn’t stay in front of Westbrook, it will be a long night because there’s no chance of Spencer Hawes, Tyler Zeller or Tristan Thompson slowing down one of the games’ elite athletes. If I’m the Cavs, I have Luol Deng shadow Durant and force him to beat you by himself. Deng is the rare player who has the length to at least make Durant work to get a clean look at the basket. But if Westbrook finds his game, it’ll that much more difficult to slow down a Thunder offense that ranks sixth in offensive efficiency (the number of points a team scores per 100 possessions).
Attack the Rim
The Thunder will be without the corpse that is Kendrick Perkins, who is expected to miss up to six weeks after having groin surgery. If there is one thing Perkins provided, it was his on-court leadership, toughness and physical presence in the paint. The Thunder are 0-3 without Perkins this season but that is likely Rookie Steven Adams will likely start again at center and although he is a big strong kid, he doesn’t possess the basketball I.Q. or experience of Perkins. He’ll be making just his fourth career start and the Cavs should you his inexperience to their advantage, involving him as much as possible in pick-and-roll situations and attacking the hoop. Put the pressure on the rookie and see how he responds. This is where the Cavs will miss Dion Waiters and his ability to attack the paint. Irving is the only other guy on this team who can consistently beat his man off the dribble.
Clean the Glass
OKC is the league’s best rebounding team, so it’s imperative that the Cavaliers crash the boards to prevent second chance points while also giving themselves extra opportunities. The Raptors hurt them last night with 21 second chance points. If the Cavs want any chance of winning this game, they must keep Adams, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison off the offensive glass. Hawes, Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller will have to be nasty, physical and bring the energy otherwise they will get destroyed on the boards.
Considering all the factors coming into this game, from the Thunder being well-rested and hungry after losing two straight home games, to the Cavs playing on tired legs without three key contributors, I would be shocked if Cleveland went into the league’s most raucous environment and pulled out the win. It will take a monumental effort from Irving and someone else will have to get hot (looking at you Deng) for the Cavs to score enough points to keep up with Durant and company.