OKLAHOMA CITY — It was the Thunder’s chance.
LeBron James out. Bench units ready to go. Oklahoma City down only four points in a game that had been tight the whole way.
Russell Westbrook wasn’t on the floor, but at least the best player in the world was on the bench for a short stretch on a night when he was showing exactly why he’s earned that unanimous descriptor. Paul George and Steven Adams paired with a bench unit that could have given Cleveland trouble.
It just didn’t.
"I’m not sure. I've got to look at that. I know we did get off to a slower start to that fourth," George said. "I've got to look at it and see what we weren’t doing well. I thought we got some good looks."
The Thunder missed 4 of 5 shots and turned it over three times during the first 3:48 of the quarter, all with James — who finished with 37 points, eight rebounds and eight assists — on the bench. Cleveland extended its four-point advantage to as many as 11 and held onto a 100-90 lead when its star reentered with just over 8 minutes remaining in regulation.
OKC never made it closer than five and lost 120-112, falling to 32-26 on the season.
“That’s going to happen through the flow of the game …You’re going to have some possessions throughout a course of a game that are not going to be great,” coach Billy Donovan said.
The Thunder, of course, didn’t have those sorts of possessions in Cleveland less than a month ago, when they dropped 148 points on a reeling squad which had collectively decided it wasn’t going to defend. Of course, the characters were different then.
Cleveland swung three deals just before last week’s NBA trade deadline, bringing in six players and sending out four as well as a draft pick. It crushed Boston on Sunday, when it played its first game with the new cast. And the additions are showing off with the second unit.
Former Laker Jordan Clarkson contributed to the run. Larry Nance, the big man and the main target in the deal that brought Clarkson to Cleveland, outlasted the Thunder with his energy around the rim and presented problems in the pick-and-roll, allowing dribblers to kick out to shooters and drain 3s. The Cavs finished with 16 triples.
“I think they just did a good job playing together,” Adams said. “That’s as much as I can tell you, to be honest.”
It was a perfect way to juxtapose the recent movement within these two rosters.
The Cavaliers renovated. The Thunder maintained at the deadline.
Of course, they were in different positions. Cleveland had to take major swings for the sake of it. And it was the NBA’s only organization willing to take on so much longterm money — an obvious reaction to James’ upcoming free agency. It made the Cavs the only squad in the top five of either conference that made a trade up against the deadline.
The Thunder were inside the norm. But their weakness, which they’re still trying to address with potential buyout candidates, showed.
The bench didn’t help.
Go through it: The Cavs outscored the Thunder by 16 with Clarkson on the floor, by 14 with Nance on, by 14 with reserve forward Jeff Green on.
Donovan tried to stagger Carmelo Anthony, who finished with 24 points, with the second unit at the end of the first quarter. He tried using George, who went for 25, and Adams, who had 22 points and 17 rebounds (including a career-high 12 offensive boards), to begin the second and fourth.
It was only a few minutes, but the start of the fourth quarter was when the Thunder could have began some sort of surge. The opposite occurred. There was no coming back from that.
"We were trying to do the right thing,” Adams said. “I think our intentions were right…Whichever play we made, I felt like it was the right decision for the play we made. So, got to live with it.”
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.