During his first stint in Cleveland LeBron learned that you can’t win in the NBA on your own. Kobe never really embraced that lesson; Jordan grudgingly accepted it. Carmelo doesn’t even acknowledge it. This season, Russell Westbrook is learning it the hard way.
Tonight’s game at the Q is coming at a opportune time for the Thunder however. The Cavs are as cold as a Melania Trump dance. JR Smith’s continued absence hurts the Cavaliers’ offence, and forces LeBron to look west and see the dynasty of Golden State grow stronger.
LeBron probably has three more peak years to take a shot at being the best forward ever, and he needs at least one more signature moment and one more title. Every year that passes makes it harder as Durant and the Warriors bask in their prime, whilst LeBron moves into his sunset and relies more heavily on Kyrie, which isn’t a bad thing.
Russell Westbrook continues to be the fearless leader of the Thunder. His prime is now, and is limited by his reliance on all-conquering athleticism. Whilst the Thunder currently sit in the Western Conference’s sixth-seed their fans will know that they had three of the top seven players in the league in OKC only five years ago. In return the fans got a two-seed, a finals appearance, and no titles. They arguably let the best two of the three players go. This season is where the Thunder must prove their plan is working: it isn’t.
For Westbrook and the Thunder this is the perfect opportunity to see how they stack up against a probable conference champ. The Cavs, whilst wounded, know that this is the type of game they must win to maintain the stranglehold on the Eastern Conference’s one-seed. They’re seemingly assured of a finals berth, and barring serious injury they can use games against the top of the west to tune for the playoffs.
Come tip-off, Cavs fans will be keen to see their defence stifle Westbrook at every opportunity. Kyrie can’t contain Westbrook defensively, but Westbrook’s lack of support means that James, Thompson and the Cavs can quickly collapse on drives and force the ball into the hands of the quieter Thunder players. The Thunder offence keeps them in most games, so things could heat up quickly at both ends of the court.
The problems begin for OKC when the second team hits the floor. Defensively, the backups have been leaky around the perimeter and have struggled to make it rain at the other end. The Cavs bench will be targeting the late first quarter as the time to pull away and take the game out of Westbrook’s hands. When Korver and Frye are both on the court the Thunder will struggle to cover the spaces. If the deep ball starts to drop it will get away from OKC.
This should be a great matchup: a refined championship team led by one of the greatest forwards ever taking on a young upstart powered by the league’s best athlete.
Westbrook hasn’t been without another superstar until this year, and maybe he hasn’t yet learned that you can’t do it on your own — this game will rest on whose belief is stronger: LeBron’s in his teammates, or Westbrook’s in himself.