For the significance of Sunday night’s showdown against league darling LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers, Thunder fans must flash back to last season.
Oklahoma City went into Cleveland a day before Thanksgiving and left town on the wrong end of a 35-point whipping that portrayed the broad gap between the Thunder and one of the NBA’s top teams.
But Sunday’s result, a more competitive game than the final 102-89 score indicated, proved the Thunder’s hot start is no fluke. Had it not been for a dismal shooting display in the decisive fourth quarter, the Thunder could have knocked off a giant and notched its first three-game winning streak of the season. Instead, Oklahoma City fell to 12-10.
Still, a telling trend has emerged.
Against the league’s six divisional champions from last season — Boston, Cleveland, Orlando, Denver, San Antonio and the Lakers — the Thunder is 2-5 with the first meeting against the Nuggets coming tonight. The scoring differential has been minus-4.7 points.
Oklahoma City went 2-15 against those teams last season, with a scoring differential of 10.6 points.
"They’re a totally different ballclub,” said Cavs guard Mo Williams. "Those young guys are growing up...It’s no secret why they’re winning games right now.”
When ESPN.com published its playoff odds last week, the Thunder was projected to win 48 games and land the fifth seed in the playoffs. The projection also gave Oklahoma City a 23.3 percent chance of winning the Northwest division.
That forecast, however lofty, doesn’t seem so farfetched now that the Thunder is challenging the league’s best.
Boxscore: Cavaliers 102, Thunder 89