Dribbles: LeBron, Cavs ‘pump it up’ in rolling by Thunder
CLEVELAND — Random dribbles from the Cavaliers’ impressive 108-98 win over the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday:
1. A lot of things are going very well for the Cavs these days. They may not be the league’s best team (yet), but they’re suddenly up there. A couple of weeks ago, the story was being told quite differently. That’s why you don’t get too high, or too low, in January.
2. But you don’t need a basketball expert to tell you what the Cavs are doing well. It’s actually pretty simple. LeBron James is healthy, the ball is moving more, and they’re a much better defensive team since general manager David Griffin shipped Dion Waiters to the Thunder for what turned into Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.
3. Beating Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder is always big. The Cavs had won five straight (make it six), and were probably due for a little letdown. As a matter of fact, they didn’t exactly play their best game. Not even close, actually. The Thunder certainly had something to do with that. Still, the Cavs played hard and mostly smart, and eventually, the shots started to fall. That’s winning basketball.
4. So the Cavs (25-20) have won six straight. They’re 6-1 since James returned from injury (he missed eight straight). Overall, they’re 24-12 when LeBron plays. They’re also 19-1 when they score 102 or more.
5. James finished with 34 points and is averaging better than 31 since his eight-game absence. He’s gone back to looking like one of two or three players in the league who nobody can check.
6. He scored eight straight to open up the fourth quarter, giving the Cavs a cushion and deflating the Thunder along the way. "I wanted to pump it up and be aggressive," James said of his spurt.
7. As for the defense, it’s been flat-out stingy during the four-game homestand. Not one of their four opponents has hit 42 percent of their shots. That’s how you win, and win big, in this league.
8. Clearly, Mozgov and his basket protection has plenty to do with that. The Cavs can afford to gamble when there’s a 7-footer behind them to guard the rim. He didn’t have one of his better offensive games, and he picked up four fouls. But he blocked a couple shots and sent a couple Thunder guards to the ground and just generally made an impact.
9. Cavs coach David Blatt on the defense: "We’re getting better and better at that end. All you gotta do is to look at the stats and you recognize it."
10. Speaking of defense, Shumpert stripped the ball from Durant, then caused two errant passes on the two possessions that followed. That’s why the Cavs brought him here and why fans gave him a nice ovation when he checked out.
11. This was clearly one of Kevin Love’s better games, as he scored 19 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and just looked a lot like the dominant player he always was in Minnesota. He went 6-of-10 shooting, including 5-of-7 on 3-pointers.
12. Overall, the Cavs probably took too many threes, finishing with 36 attempts. Then again, they made 16 for 44 percent. Blatt said he’s "not overly enthused" by the Cavs’ long-range bombs, but on this day, "it served us well." He added, "Oklahoma City is a great defensive team with great size and length (underneath the basket). The fact Kevin shot it so well really opened the game for us."
13. Mostly, the Cavs just look like they’re having fun again. Kyrie Irving (21 points, six assists) put it this way: "There’s a lot more trust out there. Guys are making big-time plays."
14. J.R. Smith has been quite the find. You have to love how he’s aggressive without hijacking the offense. He only shot 4-of-14, but his makes were four biggies — as Smith’s 3-pointers sort of sapped any hope from the Thunder.
15. Durant was pretty doggone good, too. No surprise there. He scored 32 points, threw down a few monster jams and passed for a whopping nine assists. "We wanted to force him to be a passer," Blatt said. "But he made the plays. That’s what great players do."
16. Durant spoke the truth when he said the Thunder (22-22) played a pretty good game. The Cavs were just better. "We passed the ball well. We defended well. We pretty much did whatever we wanted, but they came out on top."
17. Meanwhile, Tristan Thompson (10 points, season-high 16 rebounds) just continues to be an underrated force off the Cavs’ bench. He’s been chasing down every rebound and loose ball as if they’re a million bucks. And considering Thompson can be a free agent at season’s end, maybe they are worth that much.
18. Blatt on Thompson: "It seems like Tristan always steps up. He’s just a great guy to have on your team. He doesn’t care if he starts or doesn’t start. He just wants to help the team win, and that’s it."
19. Dion Waiters basically looked the same guy he was in Cleveland. That’s probably not a big shocker, since all he really did was change uniforms. Waiters finished 5-of-15 shooting for 14 points. If he’s hot, he’ll contribute to his new team. But I have a feeling he’ll be forever hot and cold — just as I always wrote about him when he played for the Cavs.
20. Some Cavs fans cheered for Waiters when he checked in, but the boos were considerably louder. Waiters said he doesn’t know why he received such a response. "It didn’t do nothing to me," he said. "I’m still gonna go home and sleep at night."
21. You can read more about Waiters in Fred Greetham’s piece.
22. As for the Cavs, Kevin Love said this: "Hopefully, we’re starting to put this thing together. It’s a good time to do that."