A year ago, Oklahoma City struggled at times to put games away late, even with Russell Westbrook and Paul George on the roster.
With Westbrook in Houston, George in Los Angeles and a remade roster built around second-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and veterans Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari, the Thunder are finding ways to win tight games.
“We have so many weapons on the court toward the end of the game that teams can’t really load up,” Gilgeous-Alexander said after Thursday’s win in San Antonio. “And they can’t take certain people away from us because it leads to other things for us.”
Oklahoma City takes a four-game winning streak into Saturday night’s game at the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers have dropped two consecutive games after winning four of five before that. The Thunder have won eight of their past nine.
Seven of those past nine games have been decided in clutch time – the last five minutes of a game with a margin of five or fewer points.
“We have been in this situation a lot this year,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “And we’re just getting better at it.”
Gilgeous-Alexander, the key piece Oklahoma City acquired in the trade of George to the Clippers, has been a big part of Oklahoma City’s recent success.
Over the past eight games, Gilgeous-Alexander has averaged 26.0 points, 2.6 assists and 2.0 steals with just 1.1 turnovers.
While Cleveland has struggled overall, tied for the third-worst record in the NBA entering Friday, rookie point guard Darius Garland has been a bright spot of late.
Since the start of December, Garland is averaging 11.9 points a game, shooting 42.7 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from behind the 3-point line. He’s averaging 3.1 assists and just 2.3 turnovers per game.
“All-time high right now,” Garland told Cleveland.com when asked about his confidence. “I think I’ve been playing well. My teammates have been really confident in me, so now I just have to bring it to the court.”
Garland has just one turnover in each of Cleveland’s past two games.
“For him to do that, it’s a big step in the right direction,” Cavaliers coach John Beilein said. “He’s got that ability to really score from deep, but at the same time, he’s really seeing his teammates well.”
Garland played just five games at Vanderbilt last season before a knee injury ended his year.
The Cavaliers were cautious with his return, and Beilein said he expects it will be “a few years” before Garland’s full skills are apparent.
“It was so hard to tell what we would see,” Beilein said.
Oklahoma City has won four of its last five games against the Cavaliers, winning by an average of 14.8 points per game.
The game is the first meeting between the teams this season. The Thunder won both meetings last year.
The Thunder are as healthy as they’ve been all season, with the recent return of Gallinari and Hamidou Diallo from injuries.
–Field Level Media