Oklahoma City entered today’s game on a 3-game win streak, while Cleveland entered winning only 3 of their last 9 games, and it looked like the Thunder might pick up a solid win on the road as they led 24-21 at the end of the 1st quarter. Cleveland started the game 0/7 from three, but they knocked down 4/7 threes in the second quarter to push them to a 13-point lead at halftime. The Cavs increased their lead to 19 in the third quarter before finishing the period up 80-65. The Thunder started off the 4th quarter strong, cutting the deficit to 7, but Cleveland pushed back and led by as many as 20 before the final buzzer sounded. The Thunder lost 91-107, and they continued their struggles against playoff teams.
Little Mistakes Cause Big Problems
From the beginning of the game, it was evident that the Thunder wanted to take advantage of the Cavaliers’ inability to defend the fast break. Oklahoma City pushed the ball after every Cleveland miss, and while the Thunder’s transition game definitely helped them to a small lead early, they had several missed opportunities as well. Oklahoma City missed four layups in the first quarter alone, and at the time it did not seem like that big of a deal, but in the long run, it definitely impacted the flow for the rest of the game.
Oklahoma City also had one of its worst games of the season from behind the arc shooting 6/26 (23.1%). The Thunder missed their first 11 three-point attempts, and the first make did not come until Russell Westbrook knocked one down at the 9:32 mark in the 3rd quarter. Oklahoma City is the 2nd-worst three-point shooting team in the league, and games like this just make it worse.
Lastly, while the Thunder did not have a lot of turnovers compared to normal, they seemed to come at crucial points in the game. Russell Westbrook started off the game by turning the ball over on the very first possession, and that seemed to set the tone for the day. Near the end of the second quarter, Cleveland was on a 6-0 run before Oklahoma City turned the ball over on back-to-back possessions. The Cavs ended the half on an 18-4 run, and the Thunder never got within 7 in the second half.
While little mistakes can be overcome against lesser teams, the Thunder simply cannot expect to win games against playoff-caliber squads, especially the defending NBA champs.
Kanter’s Absence Is Notable
In the first game without big man Enes Kanter, the Thunder seemed to struggle to find a successful rotation. Billy Donovan tried several different options, including more minutes for Domantas Sabonis with the starting lineup. Sabonis had a decent first half shooting over 50% from the field, but was essentially absent for the rest of the game. However, he still produced well above his average (6.1 points and 3.5 rebounds) with 12 points and 5 rebounds on the evening. The Thunder will need Sabonis to be more consistent throughout the entire game to make up for the absence of Enes Kanter.
Other players like Jerami Grant and Joffrey Lauvergne received extended minutes in an effort to pick up some of the slack. Grant had a decent outing with 8 points including two shots from beyond the arc and picked up a few rebounds as well. Grant is a proven defender especially at the rim, and will need to step up even more so in the next few months. Lauvergne actually had a pretty impressive game with 13 points on 6-10 shooting. He could be the biggest factor in whether or not the Thunder will have success without Kanter.
The only real way for the Thunder to make up for Kanter’s absence is for the team in it’s entirety to step up. It is never easy for a team to win when their leading bench scorer is gone. It will be extremely hard for just one guy to make up for it, but the bench as a whole can come together to get it done. Cameron Payne will be a huge key in this, as he is the floor general with the second unit. The talent and potential is definitely there for this team to still have success, but it all falls on whether or not the young bench can come together to get it done.
Heading to San Antonio
The Thunder will be back in action again on Tuesday night when they play the Spurs in San Antonio. This will be the first matchup against the Spurs this season (San Antonio won 2 out of 3 last year), and will be a great measurement of where the Thunder stand in the Western Conference. The game will start at 7:30 PM CST and will be televised on FSOK. It will also be broadcast on the radio at WWLS 98.1 FM.
Article written by Craig Hofeld and Zack Low. Follow @TheThunderGuys on Twitter and Instagram.