OKLAHOMA CITY: Thirty-one thoughts for 31 points from Kyrie Irving in a stunning 114-104 win over the best team in the Western Conference...
1. Mike Brown warned them what was coming, but Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes already knew it. Brown was squeezing as many precious minutes out of his red-hot bench as long as he could, but he finally started to relent and go back to his starters midway through the fourth quarter.
2. When Brown sent Hawes and Deng to the scorer’s table to check in, he joked with Deng what was going to happen if this group got another stop and a bucket. No sooner did he get the words out of his mouth did Alonzo Gee get a steal and a dunk to push the lead to 90-86 with 7:11 left.
3. The Thunder called timeout and Hawes and Deng both got up from the scorer’s table and walked back to the bench. Brown is an advocate of sticking with the hot hand, and the Cavs bench delivered huge minutes to start the fourth quarter, so Brown stuck with them.
4. It was a gutsy move, particularly once Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook returned for the Thunder with 9:34 left. But Brown stuck with his reserves (plus Irving) for another four minutes.
5. With Dion Waiters and C.J. Miles missing from the bench, Brown has relied on his starters for heavy, heavy minutes the past couple nights. Through the end of the third quarter Wednesday, Deng had played 72 of a possible 84 minutes in the last two nights. Kyrie Irving had played 76 of 84. Jarrett Jack was a little less at 60 of 84, but he had played 34 of 36 minutes against the Thunder. These guys needed a break.
6. The bench crew of Tyler Zeller, Alonzo Gee, Anthony Bennett and Matthew Dellavedova combined for 15 points in the first 6 1/2 minutes while playing alongside Irving. Zeller had six points and was quick to point out he should’ve had eight, but he blew a layup. Gee had the big steal and dunk. Bennett only made one shot, but it was a big jumper to give the Cavs the lead. Delly made a couple baskets. In a game no one thought they could win, it was the guys at the end of the bench who haven’t even been part of the rotation all year that came up with huge minutes against the best team in the West and a legitimate title contender.
7. “They just played with energy,” Brown said of his second unit. “They got up defensively, made some plays defensively, which resulted in some easy baskets offensively and they really helped us get a win.”
8. I know he’s young, but Irving has played 88 of a possible 96 minutes the last two nights. That’s doing work.
9. Give this team credit for hanging in at the start of the third quarter. The Thunder scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and had built a 67-55 lead on a jumper from Westbrook with 6:49 left. In many games this season, that would’ve been the end. That 12-point deficit would’ve grown to 16, then 20 by the end of the quarter, particularly on the road against an elite team.
10. But Brown credited the veterans like Jack and Deng for keeping everyone calm and composed during the Thunder’s run. The Cavs got some stops, they got some turnovers and a 3-pointer from Hawes and within three minutes, it was a three-point game again.
11. Jack said he kept stressing for everyone to stay the course. “They’re a tremendous team, especially in this building, a championship-contender type team,” he said. “They’re going to make those types of runs, but we have to do our best to weather the storm and stay as even-keeled as possible.”
12. When Irving sank a 3-pointer to put the Cavs up 101-97 with 3:36 left, Thunder coach Scott Brooks turned from the court and either adjusted his glasses or rubbed his temples. Or both.
13. The Thunder are clearly in a rut right now. They haven’t lost three straight at home since the 2008-09 season, which was their first season in Oklahoma City when they won just 23 games.
14. It sounds silly, but the Thunder are in a similar state of flux to what the Cavs were early in the season. They just got Russell Westbrook back recently, and while he was terrific Wednesday, they’re winless since he came back. Now they’ve lost Kendrick Perkins, and while Steven Adams may eventually be a fine pro, right now he looks like Zeller did last season – an athletic big who doesn’t always know where he’s supposed to be and can’t defend the paint nearly as well as Perkins. Plus he didn’t look very comfortable chasing Hawes around the 3-point line.
15. The Thunder have issues, and they particularly have issues against the Cavs, who have now inexplicably won three of the last four meetings in this series.
16. “Obviously playing against a great team, you’re going to get up for it,” Irving said. “Everyone in the league wants to play against a great team on their home floor. But this game doesn’t mean any more than any game we have coming up. Every game means a lot.”
17. The Cavs couldn’t miss in the fourth quarter, which is why Brooks was walking around in disbelief. They pushed the tempo, they moved the ball well and they hit open shots – a lot of open shots. They shot 14-for-21, including 4-for-6 on 3-pointers. They became the sixth team this season, according to Elias, to score at least 42 points in a fourth quarter this season. They’re just the third road team to do it. The last time the Cavs scored at least 42 in the fourth quarter was a win against the Sixers in Nov. 2010.
18. Brown has been pushing for a fast pace all season. He got it tonight. The Cavs also had better movement on the weak side. Too often this season, the offense grinds to a standstill. Brown said they’ll run a play for a certain guy, get him the ball, then everyone stands and watches. But against the Thunder, guys kept moving. If a guy was denied, he kept moving and cutting.
19. “Our weak side basketball game was really good,” Brown said. “Our spacing, our ball movement was really good throughout the course of the game.”
20. I think part of the reason for that is the addition of Hawes, who is better than I thought he was. Either that or he’s playing way over his head right now. Hawes’ presence pulls a big out of the lane and gives guys more room to move. I’ll have more on him tomorrow.
21. Now Jimmer. The Cavs have internally discussed the merits of pursuing Jimmer Fredette, but right now that seems unlikely. Fredette’s buyout with the Kings will be complete on Thursday, and once he clears waivers, he’ll be free to sign with any team.
22. Part of the Cavs’ decision whether to pursue him is the status of Waiters and Miles. If either or both are expected to miss an extended period of time, the Fredette option becomes more viable. But the team won’t really have a feel for their status until they are re-examined on Thursday and I get the impression they’ll be back sooner rather than later.
23. Fredette is a career 40-percent 3-point shooter, but he’s making 49 percent this year. The Cavs certainly could use another 3-point shooter – their best one right now is probably Hawes. But Fredette is another undersized combo guard and he’s a defensive liability. The Cavs are already playing Jack and Dellavedova big minutes, along with of course Irving. How many more point guards can they really play at one time?
24. Which is the other problem with Fredette. Assuming he’s not claimed on waivers, he’s going to pick his next spot, and he has his next contract to worry about, so playing time and potential fit will probably be as important (or more important) than playing for a contender.
25. Any minutes he would get here would chew into both Jack and Dellavedova, and while Jack doesn’t need to be playing 40 minutes a night, the Cavs believe he and Irving are finally developing some rhythm on the floor together and don’t really want to disrupt that.
26. Jack was terrific Thursday with 21 points and four assists. He and Irving combined for 23 points and four assists in the fourth quarter, when they combined to shoot 6-for-7. This team has dealt with so many shakeups and changes to the lineups and rotations, the best thing for them right now is stability.
27. “Us playing alongside one another is still fairly new,” Jack said. “We may still be a work in progress, but I think the time we’ve been together we’ve done a tremendous job.”
28. That’s why, from all indications I’m getting, the Cavs are likely to pass on Fredette. But they’ve discussed it and will continue to monitor. And if the exams on Waiters and Miles don’t bring good news Thursday, they could change course.
29. Just when everyone is ready to count the Cavs out of the playoff chase, they pull this off. Now they have another winnable game Friday at home against the Utah Jazz. This win doesn’t make this brutal March schedule any easier, but it should show them they’re capable of beating any team in the league.
30. It helps that two of the teams they’re chasing, the Hawks and Pistons, both lost. “I’m not at the point I’m looking at what other teams are doing,” Jack said. “There’s a lot of basketball left to be played and I think if we focus on us, that’ll be the best medicine for us.”
31. The playoffs are still a long shot, but four games back with 23 to play, they have a pulse. Talk to you Friday from the Q.