Getting cozy bundling under a blanket to watch a great game on television is always fun. Actually going to games in person, however, is a different exhilarating thrill. Everything sticks out and pops much more in person than it does on screen. Rare is the time you can do so twice in a week, however. Fortunately, I was able to check out the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma City on Saturday and then my hometown Arkansas Razorbacks take on the South Carolina Gamecocks on Tuesday. Here are some notes and observations I took away from those two games.

Cleveland Cavaliers vs Oklahoma City Thunder

All-Star Garland

There were a lot of points that stood out during this game, but Darius Garland’s star was what shined the brightest to me. To see how quickly and efficiently Garland problem solved every coverage the Thunder threw at him was incredibly impressive. Garland made quick work of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl on switches early in the game as a scorer and forced the Thunder to scrap that look early. Oklahoma City pivoted to cutting off driving lanes and converging on the rim to make the Cavs beat them from deep. Timely shooting from Lauri Markkanen, Kevin Love, and Dylan Windler, as well as the freakish catch radii of Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, gave Garland all he needed to drop dimes all over the place.

 

Darius Garland finished the game with 18 assists; the Thunder as a team combined for 17! Garland added 27 points of his own on 11-20 shooting. The most impressive of it all might be that Garland only handed the ball to the other team twice. According to Synergy, Garland scored or assisted on 65 of Cleveland’s 107 points that night. All after dropping 32 points and 8 assists the night before in San Antonio. That’s LeBron and Jokic type of stuff. I’ve been to a few NBA games in my lifetime (probably between 10-20); Garland’s performance might just be the best one I’ve ever seen in person.

That game was another feather in Garland’s case to make the All-Star game. Their length and size are overwhelming, but Garland’s playmaking flare is what allows the Cavs to play their style of ball. Garland was +9 in Cleveland’s five-point win. Their offense was 20.8 points per 100 possessions better when Garland was on the floor. That’s been a trend all season. For the year, the Cavs’ offensive rating drops from 111.8 points per 100 possessions to 103.5 according to NBA.com. Basically, the Cavs go from the sixth-best Phoenix Suns offense to the third-worst Orlando Magic offense when Garland sits. Cleveland is hosting the All-Star game this year. It seems like Jarrett Allen is the favorite between him, Garland, and Evan Mobley to snag a spot if only one makes it. Allen has been great this season, but if only one Cavalier can earn a spot on the team, Garland should be the one to get there.

Pogo Stick Mobley

Potential Rookie of the Year Evan Mobley was everything as advertised that made me love him as a prospect before the draft. The waves of Cleveland’s length and size overwhelmed the Thunder. Jarrett Allen is a big part of that but so is Mobley.  He just looked so much taller and longer than anybody else on the floor. Any time he switched onto a perimeter player he engulfed their drives to force either a turnover, a shot that had no chance, or a pass out to someone else to try anything else other than attempting to score on a pterodactyl. Scoring anywhere near Mobley defensively was an adventure all night and few OKC players were successful in their endeavors.

Offensively, you could see Mobley still has work to do but is already so damn good there too. He has trouble forcing contact but doesn’t mind finishing through it. He has great chemistry with Garland on lobs either as a roller or a cutter. Sneaking by the Thunder defense on the baseline is what helped the Cavs ice the game late in the fourth quarter.

Evan Mobley already is a star in the league and could already be an All-Star. I liked Cade Cunningham slightly more than Mobley coming into the draft but loved them both. The Cavs haven’t had a franchise anchor since LeBron James left; they’ve got one now.

Silky Smooth Shai

If you were to describe Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s game using one word, mine would be slippery. He’s so fluid with his movement and handle that he can gain separation on just about anybody that defends. Isaac Okoro and Lamar Stevens, two sturdy wing defenders, were tasked with guarding Gilgeous-Alexander and there were multiple possessions where SGA made them look silly. This play right here is a great example.

So smooth. That Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 22.4 points per game in this climate with such little shooting and playmaking (aside from rookie Josh Giddey) is a testament to how gifted a scorer he is. His efficiency is not great by any means (46.3-percent effective field goal percentage; 52.9-percent true shooting percentage) but he’s their lone hope towards competent offense. The Thunder have an offensive rating of 104.3 points per 100 possessions with Gilgeous-Alexander on the floor, according to NBA.com. That number dips down to 96 when he’s off it. Part of the reason for such a drastic drop-off is who all is playing in the lineups without him but that he has the biggest discrepancy and that his off-court number is the lowest on the team shows there’s just too much on his plate. Here’s hoping Sam Presti (who did pop up below our seats adjacent to the Thunder tunnel) finds some more shooting and scoring on this roster to make SGA’s life easier.

MLK Day Game Ops

I kid you not, the Oklahoma City game ops did this. They had the ‘Thunder Girls’ dance to Stevie Wonder ‘in honor’ of Martin Luther King Jr. But that was not the pinnacle of the proceedings. The in-arena DJ decided it was a good idea to try a horrible DJ Premier impersonation and cut up Martin Luther King Jr.’s notorious ‘I have a dream’ into a beat for fans to dance to for the sake of equality. We’ve cracked the code on how to end racism, guys: dancing!

Giddy for Giddey

As I said earlier, our seats were to the left of the Thunder tunnel. I was not expecting (but also wasn’t surprised), however, to have my ears pierced by a group of girls yelling at the top of their lungs: ‘JOSH!!!’ Josh, of course, being Aussie dish rookie point forward Josh Giddey, drafted fifth overall by Oklahoma City. Here’s your reminder to not watch Thunder games with your significant other around (if they’re into this sort of thing) or else they’ll hit you with the ‘hey, what’s good?’ once they get their eyes on Mr. Steal Your Girl NBA Chalamet.

As for the basketball side of things, Josh Giddey did not play his best game. His trademark playmaking was disrupted by Cleveland’s length. Giddey’s three assists were marred by his six turnovers. Giddey’s scoring ability is under construction at the moment but did manage to fling in a few floaters over Cleveland bigs. It was a bit disappointing not to get the full picture of Giddey’s sensational feel as a playmaker but the Cavs are a tough matchup for anybody, let alone a rookie. He’s gonna be a very good pro, but I’m not sure how good quite yet.

South Carolina Gamecocks vs Arkansas Razorbacks

Putting the Clamps On

The Hogs have finally figured out the style they should be playing. Offense is a treacherous adventure for this team. They only have two players on their roster shooting above 33-percent from three, and those two (Trey Wade and Au’Diese Toney) have only shot 18 times from deep this season. The half-court offense is a struggle, but their transition offense isn’t. But in order to get in transition, they have to get stops first, and now they’re doing so. Inserting Trey Wade into a starting lineup with JD Notae, Stanley Umude, Au’Diese Toney and Jaylin Williams has made has turned the Hogs into a brick wall. It was on display in the second half. After scoring 40 points in the first half, the Gamecocks did not make a field goal in the second half until the 11:41 mark. Arkansas had already scored 18 points in the second half at that point. The Hogs held South Carolina to 19(!) second-half points. They’ve held their last three opponents to no more than 59 points, including shutting down LSU to 58 points in their building. Arkansas now ranks 49th in Kenpom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. I’ve clamored for the Hogs to go all-in on defense to play to their strengths in transition and now they’re doing so. That’s their ticket to a successful season this year.

Jaylin Future Pro Williams

Jaylin Williams is Arkansas’ best player. I thought he could take that mantle before this season started, but it’s clear now. He was the driving force in the season-saving victory in LSU and a big reason for Arkansas righting the ship. He’s one of the few players you wish would shoot more, but aside from that, he is solid across the board. His defensive positioning, mobility, and instincts are fantastic. He uses college referees’ obsession with calling charges to his advantage. He’s a very good and necessary playmaking hub Arkansas can run their offense through on a team short on shooting and playmaking. Williams is only seven assists away from doubling his assist-to-turnover ratio, exceptional for any college position, let alone a center. He and JD Notae have great chemistry in the pick and roll. He reminds me of Marc Gasol at the latter stages of his career. He is a future NBA player even with his reluctance to shoot and offensive shortcomings. I have no doubt about that. It’s only a matter of time before he’s in the league. 

 

JD for MVP

Normally, the gunner scorer is not the one people would most associate as the most important force towards winning. JD Notae is an exception to that rule. Arkansas does not have another perimeter creator at Notae’s level. Devo Davis is a favorite of mine, but that’s mostly for his defensive and passing chops (though he can be loose with the ball at times). Chris Lykes has been a bit of a disappointment so far with his scoring ability muted for most of the season (he did not play in the second half against South Carolina). Notae is all Arkansas has as a perimeter creator, and he’s been great keeping this team afloat offensively. His percentages don’t reflect how good he’s been this season because of how big a load he has to carry. He’s shot the ball 274 times this season; the next most on the team is Devo Davis with 154. Even crazier is that Notae missed a game this season, a game Arkansas lost by 13 against Mississippi State. It’s not like Notae is shooting bad shots every time he touches it either. He’s hitting 53-percent of his two-point shots this season, using a slick handle and creative finishes to either get to the free-throw line or finish with traffic around him. He’s also averaging a career-high 3.4 assists per game with a career-high 1.36 assist-to-turnover ratio. Multiple times against the Gamecocks he’d get by his man and deliver slick dump-off passes to teammates to finish. It’s not always going to be pretty with Notae, but Arkansas has to ask a lot out of him this season, and he’s delivered so far. They can’t afford to have anything happen to him.

Watch Out for Stanley

Stanley Umude is one of my favorite players on this Hog team to see in person because he looks like he’s chiseled from stone. He is BUILT. It really shows up defensively. He stonewalls just about anybody he guards with his length and strength. He’s got an NBA body and the skills defensively to guard multiple positions. His defense is going to warrant a look from NBA teams, but his jump shot is the make-or-break piece in his game. He’s a 33.7-percent career three-point shooter and 74.1-percent free-throw shooter over his five-year college career. If he can make the jump from a decent to a good shooter, not only would it be a big boom for Arkansas’ offense to give Notae and crew more room to operate, but his pro prospects would warrant deeper looks from NBA teams. I’m curious if Arkansas looks to him more as a half-court scoring option because it seemed like they did against South Carolina and could use an offensive boost anywhere they can find it. He’s hit double-digits in the points department in four of Arkansas’ last six games, including 28 to keep Arkansas alive against Vanderbilt. Umude might be Arkansas’ biggest x-factor over the course of the season.

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