We all know how difficult the weather can be to predict. Who hasn’t been caught on a seemingly bright and sunny day without an umbrella when the skies suddenly open up? The Oklahoma City Thunder strolled into snowy Cleveland winners of 35 games in their 46 attempts this season. Meanwhile, the Cavs were less than 24 hours removed from the embarrassing and lackluster defensive effort against the middling Pistons. The weatherman, whether you take him or her in the form of Vegas, analysts, fans, or even this writer, failed to forecast this one correctly and was fooled yet again. It was the quick shower that was C.J. Miles’s bench production, followed by a wall of smothering, low-hanging clouds in the form of Marreese Speights, capped off by the lightning bolts coming off the kicks of Kyrie Irving that lit up Quicken Loans Arena and the surrounding stratosphere and propelled the Cavaliers to a 115-110 victory over an Oklahoma City squad poised for a deep playoff run.
All throughout this game, I was preparing myself for the “well, they played hard against a much better team” script. Yet, with each punch landed by the dynamo that is the OKC Thunder, the Cavaliers spit blood, checked that all of their teeth were still there, and kept fighting. One of those moments came with the Thunder taking a 38-31 second quarter lead. But, the Cavaliers answered back with a 7-0 run of their own that included an inbounds steal and layup by Wayne Ellington. Another came when the Thunder came out of the half guns blazing and took a 10-point lead three minutes in. Again, the Cavaliers answered the bell for the next round with a peppering of buckets from Irving and Alonzo Gee. It happened again at 78-71 OKC late in the third. The Cavaliers closed the gap to just two as they entered the fourth on a bump that went uncalled and a crafty reverse pivot hook from Tyler Zeller immediately appended with a Kyrie raindrop three pointer and a defensive hold. Time after time after time, the Thunder went on the attack and the Cavaliers took the hit and kept on ticking. For every Thunder question, there was a Cavalier answer.
Then, the Cavaliers went on the offensive with their second unit, led by a joker named Marreese. Tristan started the fourth with the vet bench bunch of Speights, Ellington, Livingston, and Miles. It was C.J. Miles answering Reggie Jackson’s miracle three from deep on the right wing with one of his and a follow up mid-ranger where the ball kicked off his heel after a Cavalier turnover and shot back to the Cavalier side of the court. Then, it was Speights hitting a long jumper on the right wing with Hasheem Thabeet contesting that got a grin and a clap that acted as a mini-Gator chomp to get his juices flowing. Then, a deep three from that same right wing from the on-target Ellington. Speights then picked up an offensive putback off a Tristan post feed miss, followed by another jumper from that same hot spot of his last J.
Then came the watershed play of the night for this second unit. With the long and lean point Shaun Livingston checking the long and lean elite forward Kevin Durant, the shot clock wound down and Durant took a long, contested three pointer. Ellington immediately grabbed the miss and was off to the races, looking ahead and finding Livingston who caught it in a 1-on-1 with Reggie Jackson. As Speights came flying down the right side of the court, Livingston used a post-up to shield a pass to a cutting Marreese on the baseline. Thabeet hesitated on switching for only a moment, and that was all Marreese needed. There might as well have been fireworks rigged to go off at the rim as the Ace of Speights turned the corner baseline thumping the ball through the iron and nylon with one leg kicked out in front of him as he gave a glare toward the OKC bench and pogo-ed his way back to his own bench as the Thunder called time and the sellout Q exploded. It created a 8-point lead and landed a shot right on the Thunder’s chin. Speights would finish with 21 points and 10 rebounds, his first double-double and a continuation of his double-digit scoring in each of his quintet of games with the wine and gold.
OKC woke up and answered the Cavalier run behind their stars as Durant continued to get to the line (17 times in all) despite a pedestrian 8-of-21 shooting night, cutting the lead to just two before Irving finally re-entered the fray with just under six to play. Irving allowed himself to work into things as he missed his first two attempts upon reentry but Miles added another three and Speights provided a three-point play inside for the Cavs to keep pace. It was the final three minutes where we would see the takeaway, the final round of this star-powered matchup.
Kyrie began it with a rock-a-bye, back-and-forth, crossover dribble drill on Kevin Durant on the right before getting fouled as he tried to go under and score from the left side, making both free throws. Then came a Tristan Thompson screen on Westbrook and a baseline drive where Mr. Fourth Quarter went right around one shotblocker in Kendrick Perkins and finished off glass over another outstretched one in Serge Ibaka, as he failed to claim that as one of his four blocks. As Ibaka’s attention waned from Thompson and focused more on Irving, the Cavaliers got creative with their halfcourt pick-and-roll. Thompson started, then slipped, then started again and finally got the Ibaka-on-Irving matchup at the elbow for which they were hoping. Kyrie deployed his new favorite go-to crunch time move, the high-dribble turned gather and 1-2 to the hole. It left Ibaka swatting at imaginary flies as he backpedaled and Irving sent it in softly over the tangle of arms. After which came the play where he trusted Thompson to make the right decision, passing off to him after a hard double on the left wing. Thompson gathered, took a dribble, and punched in his paint half-hook floater that has been so successful of late. On the next possession, it was Westbrook failing to fight through yet another screen that caused the Ibaka switch once more and a hesitation while maintaining his dribble and a leaning layup that got to the glass so fast that Ibaka couldn’t block it.
After a missed Durant jumper, Kyrie flipped the script, sending Tristan back down low for a 1-4 with Westbrook. He challenged the dynamically quick Westbrook to hang with him mano a mano. Irving slow-played it as cool and calmly as anyone we currently have in this game, firing over Westbrook with 8 on the shot clock and landing a critical three-point hit. Russell Westbrook felt Alan Anderson’s pain from Toronto. After a quick Durant layup that gave him his 32 points for the game, Kyrie went for the same 1-4 set, got more attention outside from Westbrook and of course went around him to the left edge of the key. With Ibaka waiting to block a floater that Irving had pulled off several times that very night, Irving gave flight to an Ibaka fowl, giving the hardest of ball fakes and then scoring over the falling star. In a bevy of unforgettable moments in Kyrie’s portfolio, he may have given us the crown jewel to this point on a snowy Saturday night in C-town.
The final amount collected in the Kyrie rain gauge: 35 points on 12-of-23 shooting that included 23 points in the second half and 13 points in the fourth quarter (all in the final 2:52 of the quarter). Tristan Thompson added another double-double with 11 points and 11 boards, while Speights added one with 21 and 10 as well. C.J. Miles microwaved 16 points in 15 minutes, and Alonzo Gee deserves credit for slowing Durant in the first half. Russell Westbrook added 28 points on 12-of-22 shooting and Ibaka added 18, 12 rebounds, and 4 blocks. The Cavaliers also had 27 assists and six guys with 3 assists or more including Livingston and Waiters with a half dozen each. That’s team basketball.
Kyrie’s shown his makeup in the Boston, Oklahoma City, and Lakers games this season. Now, it’s having his his team up for the Detroits and Charlottes of the world that will take this team to the doorstep of playoff contention. The 7-day forecast includes matchups with first Charlotte and then Orlando at home. If Irving can get himself and his crüe up for the lesser opponents like he has for the banner names, maybe the Cavs will have their second three-game win streak of the season.
(Photo: Tony Dejak/AP)