Neither the Cleveland Cavaliers nor the Oklahoma City Thunder are currently in playoff position.
But working with an eye toward future success, they enter Thursday’s meeting in Oklahoma City with young players providing promise for that future.
For Cleveland, that’s been the progress of 21-year-old Darius Garland added to the growth of Collin Sexton.
Garland, a second-year guard, is coming off a career-high 37 points in Monday’s win in San Antonio that included scoring or assisting on 10 of the Cavaliers’ first 12 third-quarter points, which went a long way toward Cleveland winning.
“That’s what leadership is about. That’s what growth is about,” Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “Aggressive, making his teammates better, reading the defense, reading the game. When the ball is in his hand, he’s the lead guard. He’s the guy that’s pushing that tempo.
“As he goes, the rest of the guys follow.”
It hasn’t just been his scoring, though, that has the Cavaliers encouraged about his development.
“He was still making sure everyone else was involved,” Isaiah Hartenstein said. “That’s the thing, especially what a guard needs to do. Even though he was scoring, he shared the ball.”
Garland has averaged nearly eight assists per game in the last three.
The win snapped a five-game losing streak for the Cavaliers.
The Thunder are looking to avoid what would be their first five-game losing streak since early in the 2014-15 season, when they dropped six straight.
Oklahoma City has lost by an average of 30 points during that streak, though the margin was just 11 in Tuesday’s loss to Charlotte.
Early in that game, Thunder coach Mark Daigneault had an animated exchange with 19-year-old rookie Aleksej Pokusevski.
“He’s just learning. He’s learning how to play, he’s learning how to compete, and he’s learning how to be a high-minute player and a really good player,” Daigneault said.
Pokusevski scored a career-high 25 points in Tuesday’s loss while Theo Maledon, another 19-year-old rookie, also added 25.
Scoring is nice, Daigneault said, but the overall progression is a much bigger piece.
“We’re really optimistic about those guys and a lot of those guys we have,” Daignuealt said. “The thing I’m most optimistic about is the approach more so than (the scoring). … They’ve improved because of the approach they’ve taken. They’re learning how to be NBA players for the first time. They’re learning how to live in America for the first time. They’re learning professional habits. They’re learning how to take care of their bodies. They’re learning about all the little details that add up and go into being a good player.”
Thursday’s game is the second of two meetings between the teams this season.
Oklahoma City won the first, 117-101, on Feb. 21 in Cleveland.
The Cavaliers have dropped five consecutive games to the Thunder.