By Randy Renner
It’s probably not the best case to try to avoid going into a two-game losing streak for first time since the start of December but that’s what the Thunder are facing today, a bounce-back game against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Then again the Cavs come into OKC a bit short-handed. The man regarded by most as their best perimeter defender may not be able to play. Guard Iman Shumpert, whose primary task would likely be trying to contain Russell Westbrook, sprained his left shoulder in Thursday’s win over Chicago and has missed practice time since. He appears to be a gametime decision. And Channing Frye, whom the Cavs acquired from Orlando at the trade deadline, still hasn’t been medically cleared to play.
None of that probably matter to the Thunder, especially since they lost earlier in the season to the Cavs who played that game without Frye, who was still with the Magic, and Shumpert was injured that game too and didn’t play.
The Thunder may be a bit more concerned with Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving, who missed that December 17th game too, a game Cleveland still managed to win 104-100.
And Cleveland of course also has a new head coach, David Blatt was still in charge in December, it’s Tyronn Lue’s team now.
"They're a different team now so we have to be prepared to play the right way defensively," Westbrook told reporters after Saturday’s Thunder practice.
The right way would be defending the 3-point line better today than OKC did in that December loss when the Cavs went 12-for-29 from 3-point range, an area where Irving can do some damage. The point guard has averaged 26.0 points on 53.5 percent shooting in his last nine games, including 9-for-17 from long range in the last three games. And remember the Thunder lost focus at the arc just Friday night in giving up four straight 3s in a disappointing loss to Indiana.
“Those four 3s just broke our back,” KD said that night.
OKC had much the same problem the last time they played the Cavs and they also had trouble slowing Cleveland’s fast break.
"It's just a lot of the little things," coach Billy Donovan said. "They got us in transition for several points with the floor not being balanced. They got us on some different actions. Their ability to move LeBron to the four gives you a different look. We'll try to take things from that game and try to utilize them and do things better."
It certainly won’t be easy with Irving back in the lineup for today’s rematch. His recent play has helped Cleveland now, 39-14, to a four-game winning streak, over which James has also been strong with 25.5 points on 54.5 percent with 9.5 assists, 7.2 rebounds and a triple-double while flirting with two more.
Of course Westbrook has been a triple-d machine this season with eight (2nd in the NBA) and he’s flirted with several others. He’s coming off a career-high 18 assists against the Pacers. Kevin Durant dropped 31 on Indy and is averaging almost 28 points a game.
While James and Irving have been rolling lately so have KD and Russ. Westbrook is averaging 24.8 points on 50.3 percent shooting with 12.4 assists and 9.0 rebounds over the last nine games, including two triple-doubles. Durant has averaged 32.8 points on 51.0 percent over the same period.
"They're a matchup problem," James said. "Like I said, when you have two guys that can give you 40 or 50 on any given night, it's a matchup problem. For our team, we just have to defend the best way we can, try to make it tough on those guys and live with the result."
Back in December, Westbrook scored 27 points on 10-for-18 shooting with 10 assists and Durant had 25 on 7-for-17. Serge Ibaka came up big that night with 23 points and nine rebounds but no one else on OKC’s roster scored in double-digits.
They’re going to have to have more bench help in order to avoid capping a nine-game home winning streak with two straight home losses coming right out of the All-Star break.
Who knows maybe Randy Foye, the newest member of the Thunder will help a bit with that. He went through Saturday’s practice and has picked up things quickly. Donovan said he’s hoping to get Foye some playing time today.
Remember today’s game tips at 2:30 and is an exclusive national telecast on ABC. As usual we’ll have live coverage from The Peake on our Twitter feed page and you can follow me @RandyRenner for live updates as well beginning when players take the floor for warmups at about noon.