CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers got a moral victory Wednesday, but also suffered another loss.
With players dropping like flies, Cleveland battled valiantly and overcame a 16-point third-quarter deficit, but couldn’t finish down the stretch and lost 95-86 to the Oklahoma City Thunder at Quicken Loans Arena.
The Cavs, who started the game minus two starters and got only six minutes out of another, scored on just one of their last 11 possessions in falling to an NBA-worst
1-10, while Oklahoma City, which was minus former league MVP Russell Westbrook due to a sprained left ankle, won its sixth straight to improve to 6-4.
“We battled,” Cavs veteran J.R. Smith said. “Whenever our back was really against the wall, we battled it out. That’s really good to see.”
With starting power forward Kevin Love (big toe surgery) and the man who replaced him, Sam Dekker (sprained left ankle), already out, Cavs point guard George Hill was a late scratch due to right shoulder soreness.
Rookie Collin Sexton made his first NBA start in place of Hill, while Smith started at small forward and Cedi Osman moved from small forward to Dekker’s power forward spot. Osman, however, only made it through six scoreless minutes before suffering back spasms, pressing seldom-used center Ante Zizic into action.
Despite all that, the Cavs got some tremendous efforts, though most also came with some negatives.
Backup guard Jordan Clarkson had 11 points, nine rebounds and a Cavs career-high eight assists — “I don’t know about that,” Smith quipped of the latter stat — but shot just 5-for-17 from the field and made three turnovers.
Sexton, who played a career-high 42 minutes, had 15 points on 7-for-14 shooting, but made just two of his last eight shots and had three turnovers compared to just one assist, that coming with 6:07 left in the third quarter.
“I think he passed the test, I really do,” Cavs coach Larry Drew said. “He played with a lot of vengeance. He was in attack mode. He wasn’t afraid to take the shot.
“In order for Collin to learn, he’s going to have to make mistakes. We’re going to have to live with some of them. ... We cannot get down on this kid just because he makes mistakes. It’s tough enough as it is.”
The 7-foot Zizic, who hadn’t been in the rotation all season, had 10 points and nine boards in 17 minutes, Tristan Thompson had 10 points on 5-for-13 shooting and 15 rebounds and Smith had 13 points on 5-for-17 shooting.
“The way he played tonight, does he deserve more minutes?” Drew asked of Zizic. “Absolutely.”
Dennis Schroder, who started in place of Westbrook, had a season-high 28 points and no assists for Oklahoma City, with Paul George adding 18 points and seven rebounds.
The Cavs appeared to be in deep trouble when the Thunder went on a quick 17-0 run at the end of the second quarter and start of the third to go up 56-40, but Cleveland battled back and went on a 13-0 run to take an 80-78 lead midway through the fourth.
The game was tied at 84 before the Cavs went ice cold down the stretch.
“We got open shots,” Clarkson said. “We just missed them.”
Sexton had nine points on 4-for-5 shooting in the first quarter, but had no rebounds or assists as the rest of the Cavs went 3-for-17 from the field while falling behind 23-20.
“He can score the ball. We might have to look at him playing (shooting guard),” Clarkson said, half in jest.
Running out of options, Drew went with four guards — Sexton, Clarkson, Rodney Hood and David Nwaba, then later Smith — and Thompson for a large chunk of the second quarter.
That lineup somehow had the Cavs up 40-39 late in the half — both teams shot the ball atrociously — but the Thunder scored the last nine points to go up eight at intermission.
Oklahoma City then scored the first eight points of the third quarter before the Cavs battled back and took a few brief leads, only to be unable to finish down the stretch.
“We’re learning,” Clarkson said. “We’re just pulling guys together. We’ve got to figure out when it’s time to get going and make plays.”