Even without Kevin Durant (toe) available to help shoulder some of the scoring load, the Oklahoma City Thunder should have had no problem dispatching the New York Knicks on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Instead, both teams starred in some sort of bizarre Freaky Friday sequel, with the competing offenses trading places on the efficiency spectrum as the Knicks emerged with a 100-92 victory—their fourth in five games.
Oklahoma City, meanwhile, has dropped three of its last four and has failed to cross the 100-point threshold in four straight games. While the Knicks boasted five double-figure scorers—including 31 points from Carmelo Anthony—Russell Westbrook attempted to single-handedly propel the Thunder into the win column.
Although he scored a game-high 40 points on 13-of-30 shooting (2-of-8 from three) while totaling four assists and committing four turnovers, it became evident that Westbrook was trying to force far too many looks during the game's latter stages, as noted by ESPN.com's Royce Young:
Not surprisingly, the Thunder have faltered to a substantial degree with Durant on the bench this season, according to ESPN Stats & Info:
Specifically, Oklahoma City's offense has been 5.7 points better per 100 possessions with Durant on the floor. And in the 209 minutes Scott Brooks' go-to starting lineup of Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Andre Roberson and Steven Adams has shared the floor, that five-man unit has recorded an offensive rating of 110.4 while posting a net rating of plus-15.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
Those numbers are no joke. But with Durant intermittently watching from the sidelines every few weeks with some untimely malady, Oklahoma City becomes more susceptible to falling into pits of disarray, as Grantland's Zach Lowe noted:
Center Kendrick Perkins wasn't hesitant to epitomize the sense of urgency that's consuming the Thunder with six choice words, according to The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater:
An even 23-23 on the season, Oklahoma City is teetering on the edge of unraveling at 3.5 games back of the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference standings. Now, that's not to say there isn't time left to remedy the situation, because there are still 36 games remaining. That includes two against the Suns in Phoenix.
“The record is going to take care of itself as long as we continue to play together and try to get some wins,” Westbrook recently said, according to The Washington Post's Michael Lee. “We’re in a good spot. We’re confident as a team.”
For the Thunder to improve the ground they stand on, a sweep of next week's home-and-home against the New Orleans Pelicans would represent a nice starting point. Following New Orleans' 93-85 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night, Oklahoma City continues to sit just a game back of the Pelicans.
But if the team produces suboptimal results following a clash with Anthony Davis and the league's ninth-ranked offense, then we can start talking about applying the defibrillator to Oklahoma City's postseason aspirations.
When the wheels are turning with Durant active, the Thunder's ceiling is seemingly limitless. His presence puts the rest of his teammates at ease and allows them to play a more natural brand of read-and-react ball.
If he's unable to contribute, though, the gears stop turning, and things grind to a halt as all eyes shift toward Westbrook as a potential savior—for better or worse.
Around the Association
No LeBron, No Problem—For One Night at Least
While the Cavaliers offense didn't have much else going for it, Irving dropped an NBA season-high and career-high 55 points as Cleveland downed the Portland Trail Blazers, 99-94, to capture an eighth straight win.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Irivng's outing was historic for several reasons:
Irving also fell one triple shy of tying an NBA record, according to NBA.com's stats database:
With the game knotted at 94-94 and time winding down late in the fourth quarter, Irving drilled his final trey to give the Cavaliers the lead for good:
Here's a condensed look at all 11 of Kyrie's conversions from deep:
Irving and James are now the only players to drop at least 35 points in back-to-back outings this season, following the former's 38-point outburst against the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday evening, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
In an exclusive Bleacher Report Uninterrupted segment, James praised Irving's career night:
The Cavaliers locker room capped things off by going absolutely bonkers and dousing Irving on James' command:
Atlanta Cruises, Brooklyn Loses
Yawn. Just another freakishly efficient outing from the Atlanta Hawks to push their league-best winning streak to 17 games. Bleacher Report's Dan Favale put that win total in some excellent context following wins by the Philadelphia 76ers and Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night:
As a result, Atlanta may be on track for greatness, according to NBA TV:
Paul Millsap put forth a James Harden-esque performance in the 113-102 win over the Brooklyn Nets, scoring 28 points on a mere nine shots while converting 15 of his 16 attempts from the free-throw line. He also hauled in a game-high 15 rebounds.
Kyle Korver added 17 points, 15 of which came from beyond the arc, and Al Horford made one final All-Star-caliber statement, tallying 20 points (10-of-13 shooting), 10 boards and five dimes in 33 minutes.
The Nets' Joe Johnson dropped a team-high 26 points (10-of-19 shooting) at his old stomping grounds, but Brooklyn simply didn't have enough firepower or size (out-rebounded 45-35) to hang with the kings of the Eastern Conference.
Dallas Is Sliding at an Inopportune Time
It was only a matter of time before the San Antonio Spurs started making their move up the Western Conference standings, and the first step in a lengthy process took shape Wednesday night.
Not only did the Spurs squash the Charlotte Hornets 95-86 en route to capturing a third straight win, but they now occupy the conference's No. 6 seed following the Dallas Mavericks' 99-94 loss to the Houston Rockets.
Dallas has dropped four straight and has failed to top 100 points in four of its last five games. Considering the Mavericks are proprietors of the league's second-best offense, that should raise a few eyebrows.
Perhaps more interesting is that Dallas has churned out an offensive rating of just 105.5 since Rajon Rondo's debut Dec. 20, nearly five points worse than the team's season total of 110.1, according to NBA.com.
The Sixers Really Like Playing Detroit
For the second time this season, the Sixers defeated the Detroit Pistons, ensuring at least a split of the season series.
Behind 14 points (5-of-10 shooting), 10 assists and nine rebounds from Michael Carter-Williams, the Sixers emerged victorious by a 20-point margin, 89-69. Detroit has now lost four straight, including all three games since Brandon Jennings tore his Achilles.
Philly's Robert Covington poured in 19 points (7-of-11 shooting, 4-of-5 from three), but it was rookie Jerami Grant who stole the show with this baptism of Pistons big man Jonas Jerebko:
Stan Van Gundy's club continued to sputter on offense, shooting 30.7 percent from the field and 10 percent (2-of-20) from beyond the arc.
That's particularly awkward considering Van Gundy decried the Sixers' organizational mode of operation last spring at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference:
Quote of the Night
DeMar DeRozan wasn't thrilled with some fans' decision to boo former Toronto Raptors swingman Rudy Gay during his team's 119-102 triumph over the Sacramento Kings, and he made that quite clear after the fact, according to the Toronto Sun's Ryan Wolstat: