Sunday, February 21, 2016

Suddenly, David Blatt doesn't seem like such a victim

Love Life
Today in Oklahoma City, the Thunder hosted the Cavs. Coming off a bad loss against the Pacers on Friday, most thought that the home team would do well, and probably win. After all, they are from the better conference, were at home, had an earlier loss to motivate them, and the Cavs are supposed to have been in disarray after getting head coach David Blatt ran off for neophyte Tyronn Lue. When talented but brittle point guard Kyrie Irving went off in the first half with a case of stomach flu, compounding an injury to back up PG Mo Williams, you'd really think the home team would be in a good position.

Instead, the Cavs absolutely trucked the Thunder, on national television no less, and made ABC/ESPN wish they had the Pelicans instead, considering Anthony Davis was going thermonuclear for a season-high 59 points in Detroit.

Why? Well, the Thunder aren't looking really good right now, what with Dion Waiters having four points (all of them today) in three games since the All-Star Break. While Steven Adamas and Enes Kanter have their uses, the Thunder are still disturbingly thin if a benchie doesn't bring down a lot of makes, and while Russell Westbrook is a triple-double threat every game out, the best teams in the Association can take that kind of abuse and soldier on. OKC's record against teams with +.500 records is secretly bad, and new head coach Billy Donovan hasn't been able to get the club to go to truly intriguing levels with quality ball movement or next level defensive pressure.

But all of that diminishes what the Cavaliers are right now, which is just scary. Kevin Love has stopped being a one-dimensional three point shooter on offense, and hurt the Thunder early with drawing fouls and moving the ball from the post. He had 29/11/4 today in 37 minutes, and was 11-for-12 from the stripe. With Love's offense becoming multi-dimensional, Tristan Thompson can get back to his comfort zone of dirty work, which he did with 14/14/1 and a block on six shots. Richard Jefferson and Timofey Mozgov did good thinks with their bench minutes, giving the team 26 and 11 on 9 for 12 from the floor, and really owning their minutes against the Thunder benchies.

But more than anything, the switch from Blatt to Lue seems to have pressed the reset button on LeBron James, who went 25/7/11 on 22 shorts, including several of the "OK, forget about winning this game" variety. With Love getting more early touches, James didn't look gassed at any point, and had plenty in the tank to thwart the Thunder's early fourth quarter attempts to make it a game. With Lue's push towards more up-tempo offense, there's less standing around and isolation dribbling, which is to say, there's just the kind of hoop that has always made James unstoppable.

So while the Cavs were roundly criticized for running off their coach when they had the best record in the lEast, the plain and simple is that they look a lot better off for the move, and even more like the clear best team in the conference. They also look like a team that would get worked in the Finals by the Warriors again, but hey, that's what life in the age of empire looks like these days.

There's also this. In the third quarter of this game, Westbrook got loose on the break, crossed over the consensus dirtiest player in the league in backup PG Matthew Dellevedova, and threw down a dunk of startling power and speed. It was the kind of hoop that routinely changes momentum, especially since Dellie had seemed to inspire it with his usual thuggery (he'd get a flagrant later), and the home crowd in OKC is one of the better ones in the Association.

The Cavs just shrugged it off like it was two points and nothing more, because, well, they know they have the best player on the planet (still), and see that kind of thing all the time. By the end of the third, the Cavs were up big, the starters were able to sit for most of the fourth, and Lue was starting to look more and more like Steve Kerr to Mark Jackson, if you catch my drift.

Proving, once again, that coaching in the Association has always been about more than tactics...

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