OKLAHOMA CITY — It’s not only just one game for the Cleveland Cavaliers anymore. They now have two to show as evidence that, yes, this is a whole new team with a whole new outlook on this season.
In an exhilarating back-and-forth with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Cavs leaned on red-hot perimeter shooting and plenty of brilliance from LeBron James — 37 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists — to outlast OKC 120-112 on Tuesday.
It’s one of James’ many remarkable traits that a roster halfway turned over just a week ago can show up and play cohesively, moving the ball to open players and generating connected offense. James is so adaptable, and carries a gravity that forces teammates to fit, that the Cavs can remodel their team on the fly, whereas it took the Thunder three months and 30 games to start to figure it out.
The Cavs closed it out with three players who weren’t on their team a little more than a week ago, with James playing distributor and finding shooters after a spread pick-and-roll. Former Lakers Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson made significant impact, with Nance making a number of hustle plays, the biggest being a tip-out offensive rebound right to Clarkson for a dagger 3-pointer to put the Cavs up 11 with three minutes to go.
That’s what the Cavs have now, a variety of options to close out games and for James to choose from and use. Coach Tyronn Lue talked before the game about needing a little time to sort through it all, but with James orchestrating, the adjustment comes far easier.
The Cavs scorched the floor in the first half, hitting 10-of-19 from 3-point range, led by J.R. Smith who started 5-of-5 from deep. So much to unlocking the potential of these Cavs resides in James and the way he can elevate others, but it’s also a more comfortable and content Smith. He always has been a temperature gauge for Cleveland, and when he heats up, he can boil quickly.
It set the table for a flurry to start the third, virtuoso stuff from James, as he poured in 14 points in a little less than five minutes. When James’ jumper is calibrated, there simply isn’t a way to guard him. Even with maybe the best perimeter defender in the world in Paul George, there was no answer. James hit one, a fading, leaning, one-legged baseline jumper that was so filthy the Thunder had to play the rest of the game wearing hazmat suits.
OKC weathered it, though, with Russell Westbrook finishing a spinning and-1 layup, then Carmelo Anthony hitting a jumper and a wing 3 to stabilize after James dropped fireballs on them. After a near-comical stretch in which the Thunder pounded the offensive glass on free throws, they even took a brief lead at 82-81 late in the third.
Both Westbrook and Anthony returned after missing the previous two games with ankle injuries. It was obvious for Westbrook especially that there was some rust, with his handle sloppy and his jumper a bit out of rhythm. Westbrook finished with 21 points, 7 rebounds and 12 assists, but the Thunder’s offense staggered in the second half with some stale execution and iffy shot selection.
As he did in Cleveland a month ago when OKC dropped 148 on the Cavs, Steven Adams big-boy’d everybody on the floor, turning missed shots into maybe the Thunder’s best offensive play. He finished with 22 points and 17 rebounds, 12 on the offensive end. Adams’ emergence as a dominant paint presence and elite offensive rebounder gives the Thunder another weapon, but the Cavs smartly spread the floor down the stretch with Nance playing center, and it neutralized Adams’ ability to protect.
It wasn’t long ago that the Thunder embarrassed the Cavs on national television, but then again about half of Cleveland’s current roster wasn’t present then. The look and feel of these Cavs was noticeable, a team ready to compete and withstand any adversity thrown at them. The Thunder played pretty well, even with a rugged game from Westbrook. The Cavs were just better. They have clearly been renewed, and within the chaotic deadline that brought in a bevy of new faces, the best acquisition the Cavs actually made was getting the best player in the world back again.