Originally posted on Waiting For Next Year  |  Last updated 3/9/12
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Westbrook, Harden, and the Thunder present a formidable challenge

It feels good to be back on the winning side again. Now the Cavaliers (14-23, 10th in the East) will try to carry that positive momentum into Oklahoma City where Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the rest of the Thunder (31-8, 1st in the West) are waiting.

The Thunder have the NBA’s best record, sure, but once again this is matchup for the Cavaliers that I don’t hate. The Thunder are sorely lacking effective frontcourt players and have been doing a lot of their damage from outside 10 feet of the rim.

In fact, 42.4% of the Thunder’s shot occur inside 10 feet. That’s compared to 49.96% of the Cavaliers’ shots coming inside 10 feet. This is significant because the teams who have been hurting the Cavaliers since Varejao went out with the injury have been teams who abuse the Cavaliers inside.

Obviously, Russell Westbrook thrives on getting to the rim and how Kyrie Irving fares in defending him will be a huge part of this game. But outside Westbrook, the Thunder have a lot of players who play on the wings and shoot outside shots. Kendrick Perkins continues to play subpar basketball with the Thunder and Nick Collison has seen his effectiveness decline the last couple of seasons.

The Thunder are a pretty weak rebounding team in terms of reb% (16th in ORB% and 21st in DRB%) and they are a fairly mediocre defensive team as well. Obviously the Cavaliers can’t count on Antawn Jamison to score 33 points again, but if Kyrie can pick up some the scoring slack in the first half for Jamison, and if Tristan Thompson can pick up what scoring dropoff Alonzo Gee might have, I think the Cavaliers actually have a bit of a chance again.

But if it sounds like I am making the Thunder out to be a weak team, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Make no mistake, this Thunder team is excellent and the Cavaliers will only have a chance to hang in there if the Cavaliers give another full 4 quarter effort again.

Oklahoma City is surgical on offense. They are efficient, methodical, and diversified. They can hurt you so many ways. Russell Westbrook uses his combination of strength and athleticism to just abuse opposing PGs, Kevin Durant is the best pure scorer in the NBA, and James Harden is an overlooked player in terms of his arsenal of offensive skills. From there, the Thunder rely on role players like Daequan Cook and Serge Ibaka to fill in the scoring gaps. The Thunder exude a confidence that they cannot be beaten and most nights they seem to slowly ooze the will out of their opponents’ and use it to wear them down.

Serge Ibaka is an elite defender and he is going to make it awfully tough for Alonzo Gee and Antawn Jamison to replicate their big scoring games of the other night. Nobody seems to be talking about this, but Kevin Durant has shown enormous improvement in his defense. He is quickly becoming a very good, above average defender. Between he and Ibaka, the Cavaliers are going to find scoring from the 3 and 4 to be a little bit more difficult.

So where is that scoring going to have to come from? Here comes broken record time, but Kyrie Irving needs to get going early. Westbrook is often a disinterested defender and Irving should be able to beat him off the dribble. If Irving can lure Westbrook into “takeover mode”, it will reduce Durant and Harden’s roles in this game and that’s a good thing for the Cavaliers. The Irving-Westbrook matchup is absolutely the matchup to watch in this game. How each PG attacks each the other while also keeping teammates involved will shape the flow of this game.

I really felt the Cavaliers were going to sneak up and beat Denver the other night. I’m not as confident about this game. However, I honestly do think the Cavaliers are capable of giving the Thunder all they can handle. The question, as it so often is this year, is whether the Cavs’ lack of consistent effort comes into play or not in this game.

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