Cavaliers-Thunder Preview

Over the past few seasons, the Oklahoma City Thunder were a bit

of a pushover. LeBron James realizes that’s not the case

anymore.

Hoping to carry some momentum from Cleveland’s latest win, James

knows the Cavaliers will be tested Sunday night against a strong

Thunder team led by Kevin Durant.

Oklahoma City finished last in the Northwest Division in each of

the last three seasons, and its 74-172 record over that span was

the second-worst in the NBA. Like most opponents, the Cavaliers had

little trouble beating the Thunder in 2008-09, winning both

meetings by an average of 23.0 points.

This season is shaping up to be quite different.

Behind Durant’s 28.3 points per game and the play of Russell

Westbrook at the point, the Thunder (12-9) have emerged as a

potential playoff contender.

In Friday’s 102-94 win over Memphis, Durant finished with 32

points and 10 rebounds, while Westbrook added 23 points and seven

assists in Oklahoma City’s third victory in four games. Durant, who

has led the Thunder in scoring in 18 of the 21 games, is averaging

32.3 points in the last four.

“My teammates do a great job of encouraging me and getting me

the ball, and I just try to finish for them,” Durant said.

The Thunder are three games over .500 for the first time since

2004-05, when the team was based in Seattle and finished 52-30.

Oklahoma City, the second-youngest team in the NBA, has reached 12

wins after needing 50 games to accomplish that feat last

season.

“They have a very, very good young (group) of basketball players

that love to play the game of basketball,” James said. “We are

looking forward to the challenge. It is going to be a good road

test for us against a young, explosive team in their home building,

and we have to come out with the same fire we did in the second

half (Friday).”

The Cavs (16-7) played an uninspired first half Friday and went

into the locker room trailing Portland 54-45. At the break, coach

Mike Brown laid into his players, and they responded with an

intense final 24 minutes to beat the Trail Blazers 104-99.

“Our will in the second half, led by LeBron James, has to become

habit for us,” Brown said. “It has to be our identity for 48

minutes. That’s something that myself and LeBron need to

capture.”

James finished with 33 points, seven assists and seven rebounds,

and made an incredible block on a Brandon Roy jump shot with 24

seconds left and the Cavs leading by five.

Shaquille O’Neal helped spur the second-half surge, scoring nine

of his 14 points in the third quarter. He wasn’t around for the end

of the game after being poked in the left eye by Portland’s Joel

Przybilla with 2:47 remaining in the third, causing it to

bruise.

O’Neal was taken to the Cleveland Clinic for precautionary tests

and is expected to travel with the team to Oklahoma City.

If O’Neal can’t play, the Cavs – 5-1 without the 15-time

All-Star center – would likely need Anderson Varejao to step into a

larger role. Varejao, averaging 8.0 points and 8.1 rebounds, had a

season-high 22 points with 10 boards Friday.