Here are five quick observations from the Thunder’s 102-95 win in Cleveland on Thursday night:
1. Win without Westbrook - Despite what we saw this past Sunday, when the Mavericks obliterated OKC at home without Russell Westbrook, the Thunder is capable of winning without its All-Star point guard. In fact, they’re now 23-9 this season without him. And this one was expected, facing a depleted Cavs team without its superstar (Kyrie Irving) and second-best player (Luol Deng). But still, it goes down as a significant victory, if only because it wipes out one of the Thunder’s remaining games without the resting Westbrook. Now, they get him back in Toronto tomorrow with a chance to sweep a road back-to-back.
2. Lambo - The biggest development of this game may have been the temporary reinsertion of Jeremy Lamb into the rotation. Scott Brooks went with him to start the second quarter and he immediately delivered on both ends, dropping an and-1 and blocking a jumper in his first few minutes. He played with an energy and confidence we haven’t seen from him the past month, where he’s been ineffective in brief stints. And apparently Scott Brooks noticed. Because he gave Lamb some extended run. In all, he played 26 minutes — his most since the All-Star break — and contributed 10 points, three rebounds, two assists and two blocks. And late in the game, he combined with Serge Ibaka for the game’s most important rebound, securing a tap-out. Thursday was a big-time morale booster for Lamb. Now it’ll be interesting to see if he gets minutes on Friday, when Russell Westbrook’s returns to cloud the backcourt rotation.
3. KD’s MVP push - It may not be mid-January, when Kevin Durant was snagging headlines with legendary performances and outrageous scoring totals. But of late, KD has been equally as impactful and nearly as statistically dominant. This month, he’s averaging 33.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.2 assists. And in the past two games — two solid and needed road wins — Durant has compiled 70 points, 23 rebounds, 11 assists and only one turnover. With LeBron and the Heat struggling, KD is starting to create some separation in the MVP chase. And while doing so, he’s nearing another scoring milestone. Durant’s streak of 25-plus points has hit 33 games, only seven away from Michael Jordan’s 40 — the longest in the past 50 years.
4. Bad closeout - With six minutes left, Scott Brooks unwrapped his victory cigar, inserting Mustafa Shakur into the game as part of his mop-up crew. OKC was up 24 and the starters were getting an earned rest. But the B Team couldn’t do its job. In less than four minutes, the Cavs went on a 16-0 run. And even after a frustrated Scott Brooks called timeout and went back to KD and crew, Cleveland extended its run to 21-2 and cut the Thunder lead to five. A few stops and free throws provided enough separation, but the near collapse gave OKC an unneeded scare and Durant some avoidable minutes on the front end of a back-to-back. Not concerning — considering who was on the court — but not something Brooks ever wants to see.
5. Fifty wins - With Thursday’s win, the Thunder became the third team this season to reach 50 wins. And it was the fourth time in the past five years OKC has hit the half-century mark, with the only exception coming during the lockout (2011-12 record: 47-19). The regular-season end goal is likely 60 and a one-seed, which OKC nailed last year, but 50 is historically an important mark. It’s the sign of a great season. And the Thunder has had five straight, sustaining success in a league where it’s extremely hard to do just that.
Vines of the game
-KD closing the first half with a nasty cross and buzzer-beater, complete with a great bench reaction:
-A monstaaaaaahh Kevin Durant alley-oop finish
-Spencer Hawes with the worst goaltend I’ve seen since Gorgui Dieng randomly caught a Derek Fisher three above the cylinder:
The Spurs and Clippers didn’t play on Thursday, meaning the Thunder gained a half-game on each. Now 1.5 games behind San Antonio and 2.5 up on Los Angeles.