At some point during Oklahoma City’s unforgiving, rapturous 148-124 beat-down of the Cavs, LeBron James might have thought to himself: ‘this all feels so familiar’.
A team of three vibrant, ultra-athletic superstars, playing at pace, jumping passing lanes to kick-start fast-breaks with singular conclusions, mixing silk and violence, charging purposefully towards the rim or otherwise swishing open threes.
This was LeBron James’s basketball life in Miami. Upon returning to Cleveland it was a little different – a little less athletic, a little less humanly impossible – but it was often just as devastating; with more shooting and whirring ball-movement compensating for slower-twitch muscles.
Both those lives are gone now. What is left is a broken memory, a team held in the straitjacket of its own age and weariness.
Yesterday, everything came so easily for Oklahoma City. Their default pace is mania, because it’s all that their best player knows, and it was a pace at which the Cavaliers couldn’t keep up, disinclined and unable.
The Cavs plodded and played joyless basketball, going through the motions of what defence looks like, players vaguely moving in the direction of their opponent, half-heartedly rotating a second too late, too tired to even really point fingers afterwards.
Steven Adams turned men into boys into infants and Russell Westbrook accelerated to the rim unimpeded, laying the ball in and looking almost confused at how easy it all was. Paul George and Carmelo Anthony feasted on open shots and then, when the shots finally became contested, their eyes were so firmly locked in that their bodies treated them as wide open.
And the Cavaliers did… not much. Kevin Love being out made it tougher to keep up with the Thunder in a shootout, but Love’s absence doesn’t explain what happened to Cleveland’s defence. Consider, for a moment, that the Cavs just gave up 148 points to the league’s 12th-ranked offence in a game where Kevin Love played only three minutes.
Whatever Isaiah Thomas does or doesn’t give them, the mere presence of James and Love surrounded by shooting means Cleveland will have an elite offence.
Thomas hasn’t looked right yet, lacking explosiveness and the intangible magic he had all of last season. This is to be expected after the length of his layoff, but at his age, with his injury, the rust could always be permanent.
Even if it’s not, and Thomas somehow rediscovers his MVP ballot-type form, it’s a question as to how much he will really help the Cavs. This team can score, but they’re atrocious defensively and abysmal on the glass. They’re old, tedious and oddly ground-bound, a cruel irony engulfing the most dynamic, explosive and physically powerful basketball athlete perhaps of all-time.
Jae Crowder is a shadow of the player he was in Boston, Dwyane Wade is no longer undeniable – merely crafty – and Derrick Rose is an ineffectual sideshow. Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith are who they are – Smith is only going to get worse, and Thompson doesn’t appear to be getting better.
Love has always been miscast – not just on this team, but perhaps in this particular generation of basketball. He is a magnificent and realised talent in so many ways, but continues to be restrained by the lazy truth that has been self-evident from the beginning: he’s slow and he can’t jump.
There is no position for him on defence against the elite offences, and his offensive genius and nuance have never been truly been unlocked by Cleveland.
The Cavs – losers of nine of their past 12, with two of their three wins in that stretch against the Magic – are spiralling and fracturing, dispirited by the manifest reality that they have no viable path to a meaningful shot at toppling Golden State. If a final strike home run swing is to happen, one suspects it will be to the trade table with Love.
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