The big-game energy and buzz was knocked down a couple pegs before tip-off when it was announced LeBron James wouldn't play. But even without King James, the Cleveland Cavaliers still posed a stiff test for an Oklahoma City team still trying to regain its footing after getting the entire roster healthy just over a week ago.
There were still struggles, but the Thunder—Kevin Durant in particular—continues to look more and more like the team many expected to be a title contender this year and added a 103-94 win over the Cavaliers Thursday night at The Peake.
After seeing a 20-point lead be whittled away to just four points with two minutes left, Durant took over. The Thunder's closer scored the final eight points for OKC, all in different ways—a dunk, two free throws, a fadeaway jumper (Dirk-style) and a ridiculous layup that only could've been accomplished with his long arms.
Giving up a big lead in the fourth quarter was but one way OKC showed it isn't back to normal just yet. The first quarter was just abysmal as the Thunder turned the ball over seven times and missed all eight 3-point attempts. Without Russell Westbrook's strong showing, OKC easily could have been blown out in the first 12 minutes.
Westbrook finished with 26 points, eight assists and seven rebounds, another terrific performance for the Thunder point guard. Even though Westbrook was just 4-of-13 from the field in the second half, the rest of the team had finally caught up with his energy level, so it didn't end up being a bad thing.
Durant finished with 19 points, but was stuck on 11 points until his closing run in the last two minutes.
Without James, the Cavaliers relied on the other two parts of their Big Three, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Irving finished with 20 points to lead Cleveland, but needed 21 shots to get them. Irving also had a scary moment at the end of the first half when he knocked knees with Westbrook and his left leg bent awkwardly. After being helped to the locker room, Irving came out for the second half and showed no ill effects from what was described as a contusion.
Love finished with a double-double of 18 points and 16 rebounds, but shot just 5-of-13 from the field.
Matthew Dellavedova, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters all added 14 points for the Cavs. Thompson also had 13 rebounds.
For Oklahoma City, the bench was once again huge in helping the Thunder pull out the win. Five players combined for 39 points, with Reggie Jackson leading the way with 13 points. Anthony Morrow had 11 points and went 3-of-5 from 3-point range. It was his 3-pointers in the second half that helped OKC take a tie game at halftime and open up an 86-66 lead with 10:23 to play.
During the Thunder's 39-19 run over the third quarter and first two minutes of the fourth quarter, OKC finally found the range from deep. After starting the game 1-of-15 from 3-point range, the Thunder hit its next six 3-point attempts to open up the game.
The Thunder still has work to do to get back to being the team we've grown accustomed to seeing the past few years. But after 22 games, OKC is just 2.5 games behind Phoenix for the eighth spot in the Western Conference.
The question is no longer if the Thunder will make the playoffs, but how far up the standings they can climb. Even though OKC has won four straight and six of the past seven, it's going to take better play to continue to climb through the West.