CLEVELAND — The Thunder never led Saturday against one of the East’s elites, but a scrappy Thunder second unit sure made the Cavaliers sweat.
Cleveland hung on, though, to beat the Thunder 110-102 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. It was a strong win for the Cavaliers (17-10), who were playing without star guard Donovan Mitchell (right leg soreness) on the second night of a back-to-back.
The Cavaliers led by as many as 17 points in the third quarter, and they led by 15 points with 11:32 to go in the fourth.
What looked like a Cavs runaway turned into a Thunder rally.
“The group to start the fourth really gave us a jolt,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “It didn’t feel like a great rhythm night for us, and yet we found ourselves in the thick of the game.”
OKC (11-15) stormed back with a spree of 3-pointers — two by Aleksej Pokusevski and two by Isaiah Joe. Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff was whistled for a technical after Joe’s second 3-pointer, and Joe stepped to the line and sank the free throw.
Rookie guard Jalen Williams completed the rapid comeback with a driving layup that tied the game 89-89 with seven minutes to play.
The Thunder did all of that work with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the bench.
Cleveland regained control, however, with a 3-pointer from Evan Mobley and a Jarrett Allen two-hand flush.
The imposing Mobley/Allen frontcourt duo combined for 42 points and 23 rebounds.
Cleveland did a good job stifling Gilgeous-Alexander. The Cavaliers switched every SGA pick-and-roll, and it was hard for Gilgeous-Alexander to get comfortable with Mobley and Allen looming at the rim.
Gilgeous-Alexander, who fouled out with a minute left, had 23 points on 7-of-13 shooting — his fewest field goal attempts of the season. He shot 9-of-9 from the free throw line.
SGA wasn’t the difference maker in this one. He was a team-worst minus 17 in his 31 minutes.
“He’s been roasting the league for a month and a half now, and teams are gonna study, they’re gonna adjust, they’re gonna figure out the best game plan and then you have to counterpunch,” Daigneault said.
“He has to counterpunch. We have to counterpunch.”
Poku’s all-around game
Early on, it looked like an old Poku game. He started 1-of-7 from the field and threw a pass into the second row.
But Aleksej Pokusevski turned his night around, and turned into one of the best all-around performances of his career.
Poku finished with 16 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and three blocks. He shot 3-of-3 from behind the arc.
After his 1-of-7 start, Poku made five of his next seven shots. He showed something there. The Poku of the last two seasons might have had a hard time getting back on track. He’s clearly taken a jump this season, not only in performance but also in confidence.
Pokusevski’s 14 rebounds were impressive against a giant Cleveland frontcourt.
“They’re really active and bouncy, and he had his nose in there for much of the night,” Daigneault said.
Daigneault wanted to start small in the second half, which is why he went with Aaron Wiggins over Pokusevski, but Daigneault quickly went back to Pokusevski, who played a team-high 34 minutes.
“He really hung in there mentally and gave us a huge lift,” Daigneault said.
Josh Giddey’s historic mark
Giddey crossed the 1,000-point threshold in his 17-point, 13-rebound performance against the Cavs.
Giddey became the seventh-youngest player in NBA history to record 1,000 career points and 500 career rebounds.
1. LeBron James (19-326)
2. Dwight Howard (19-331)
3. Luka Doncic (20-021)
4. Josh Smith (20-039)
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo (20-044)
6.Andrew Bynum (20-055)
7. Josh Giddey (20-061)
Beyond those notable numbers, Daigneault said Giddey played as hard as he has all season.
Giddey confirmed as much.
“I did feel it,” Giddey said. “I’m not sure what changed or what it was, but I put myself in a lot more contests. I felt like defensively I was a little more locked in than I have been in the past. Coach has been on me about that.
“I think I competed hard. It can’t be a ‘sometimes’ game. In the NBA, those little things matter every night.”
The Cavaliers play at the slowest pace in the NBA. The Thunder, meanwhile, operates at the third-fastest pace in the league.
“You can’t totally control the game in terms of how your opponent wants to play, but we certainly want to play fast,” Daigneault said before the game.
So were the Cavs going to slow down the Thunder or would the Thunder speed up the Cavs?
It was unfortunately the former for the Thunder.
“I think we played on their terms for a lot of that match,” Thunder guard Josh Giddey said. “When they make it a slugfest like that, that falls into their hands.”
Cleveland’s defense against SGA had much to do with the slower pace.
“They switched one-through-five with him, they switched every pick-and-roll, which I thought threw off our rhythm,” Daigneault said. “It really slowed down the pace of our offense.”
When the Thunder had the ball, it was a battle of strength vs. strength. OKC ranks second in paint points per game, and Cleveland, the No. 1 offense in the NBA, allows the fewest paint points per game.
Fittingly enough, the Thunder and Cavs tied 54-54 in the paint.
• The Thunder played its seventh Saturday game of the season — more than any other day of the week. Monday (five games) has been OKC’s second-busiest game day. The Thunder is 3-4 on Saturdays.
• When Lu Dort greeted Cavs forward Mamadi Diakite before the game, Diakite wrapped Dort in a bear hug and lifted Dort off the floor. Diakite played in 13 games and made three starts for the Thunder last season. He’s played in 11 games for the Cavs.
• Thunder forward Darius Bazley was back in the rotation Saturday after logging back-to-back DNPs (coach’s decision).
• Before the game, Daigneault was asked what Bazley needs to do to get more playing time: “We’re trying to help every guy understand their individual style of play that maximizes their strengths and maximizes their ability to impact the team,” Daigneault said . “I would say that’s basically the template, the blueprint for every guy. Figuring out what that is, and executing it and playing to it.”
• Bazley shot 2-of-3 from deep and was energetic on defense. “The defense was loud,” Daigneault said. “We moved him back and forth on (Caris) LeVert and (Darius) Garland. I thought his length on Garland was particularly impactful.”
• Garland shot just 3-of-9. LeVert led the Cavs with 22 points.
• Kenrich Williams (right knee sprain) didn’t make the trip to Cleveland and he won’t be with the team Monday in Dallas.
• Lu Dort (left knee contusion) was back in the starting lineup. And he was sporting a new hairstyle, with his braids tied in a ponytail.
• Aleksej Pokusevski wore a wrap on his right wrist/hand.
• The Thunder started Gilgeous-Alexander, Giddey, Dort, Pokusevski and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. That’s been OKC’s most frequent starting five, but it’s not been effective. Going into Saturday, that group had been outscored by 28.2 points per 100 possessions in their 80 minutes.
• The Cleveland Glenville high school football team was honored at midcourt during a first-quarter timeout. The Tarblooders, coached by Ted Ginn Sr., won Ohio’s Division IV state championship. They became the first-ever Cleveland Metropolitan School District team to win a football state championship. And for that they received a raucous standing ovation from Cavs fans.
• Isaiah Joe had his first Thunder dunk. He had four dunks last season for the Sixers.
• SGA was booed loudly in Memphis for his repeated trips to the free throw line. The same happened in Cleveland.
• Guardians third baseman Jose Ramirez, a four-time All Star, was in the house.
• Eugene Omoruyi and Jaylin Williams did not play (coach’s decision).
• In addition to Mitchell, Kevin Love (lower back soreness), Dean Wade (left shoulder sprain), Dylan Windler (right ankle sprain) and Ricky Rubio (ACL recovery) were also out for the Cavs.
• Mitchell, traded from the Jazz to the Cavaliers, is averaging a career-high 29.0 points per game on career-high shooting marks: 49.6% overall and 42.4% from 3-point range. He’s been Cleveland’s leading scorer and offensive engine next to star backcourt mate Darius Garland.