-- CLEVELAND -- As much as the Thunder have struggled and stumbled through the first half of the season, one thing they've been consistent with is they get up to play the best teams, especially when the world is watching.
The tone was set from tipoff, and the Thunder really never took their foot off the gas, blasting by the Cavaliers 148-124 as their big three played their most complete game of the season. Paul George scored 36 on 12-of-19 shooting (5-of-11 from 3), Carmelo Anthony had 29 on 11-of-19 (plus 10 rebounds) and Russell Westbrook piled up 23 points, 9 rebounds and 20 assists. Plus 25 and 10 from Steven Adams, on 12-of-13 shooting, for good measure.
It was the kind of game the Thunder relish, an opportunity to validate themselves to, well, themselves, as well as the rest of the league. And they took advantage of it, and then some. It was the most points for the Thunder in regulation since moving to Oklahoma City, and the second 20-20 game of Westbrook's career. Go through the box score, and it's a Thunder party.
The game was supposed to be a 30,000-point coronation for LeBron James, but with the Cavs on the wrong end of a blowout, James took a seat midway through the fourth, scoring 18 points, seven shy of the mark.
"I was hopeful it took two games for him to get to that," said George, who spent the majority of the game assigned to James. "I actually didn't know that stat until coming into tonight. They told me he needed 25 to go over 30,000. I've been a part of a lot of those baskets that he's had, so yeah, that's an achievement or milestone I didn't want to be a part of."
The question many were wondering after the game was a chicken/egg conundrum: Was it just that the Cavs are this atrocious on defense, or that the Thunder's offense was that good? The answer probably lies somewhere in between, but the Thunder were in full-fledged attack mode, playing with pace and running their sets with energy and tempo. That's been an offensive focus for them in the past month, to get into their stuff earlier in the clock, and run sets with a lot of speed. Westbrook excels playing downhill with players on the move around him, and as the ball kicked around to players in space, they attacked into open pockets on the floor.
There's been an attempt to nail down what the Thunder need to look like for them to hit their potential offensively, whether that's Westbrook as a distributor, George as the focus, Anthony as the third option -- but there really is not a set formula. The Thunder's template is more about the process of offense, rather than a blueprint. Westbrook's aggressiveness leads to George's efficiency which leads to Anthony's catch-and-shoot looks. It's all a mechanism that functions together, rather than independently, and Saturday's game is the best example of it yet this season.
There's obviously an instinct to ask "why not play every game like that?" but (a) the Cavs were at an appalling level of defensive indifference at times and (b) getting 113 points combined from four players doesn't seem sustainable. There is an element of clear figuring-it-out happening, though, with the Thunder moving to 26-20 on the season, a season-high six games above .500, and now 18-8 since Dec.1.
"We can be as good as any team in the West, any team in the NBA for that matter," George said. "When we play the right way the game comes easy."
It made for a very satisfied postgame locker room, with players talking about plays from the game, admiring the stat sheet or shaking their heads about former teammate Enes Kanter's trolling tweet of James. Westbrook, Anthony and George all took their time getting ready, and as Anthony prepared to leave the locker room, he joked to Westbrook, "Russ, you had 23 and 20 and you still haven't done media yet?" Through the season, there's been a quiet, unspoken confidence within the Thunder about what they can be, even through the perplexing lows they've hit. They've stayed loose; they've stayed connected. They've told themselves it would come, and Saturday was another reason why.
Their concern has been in consistency, with a little arrogance in their talent leaving them to expect nights like this against bad teams. They play the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday in OKC, and it'll be a test of their mental fortitude. But when the Thunder are put to a supposed contender test, they have mostly passed them quite emphatically this season. It's why there's a belief within the team that wherever they happen to settle in the West when 82 are up, they're going to be something to reckon with in the postseason. Because those games are on national TV after all.