Four games in a row now, the Miami Heat played like champions. Whether it was controlling the game on both ends against the Washington Wizards or Dallas Mavericks or winning despite a drastic disadvantage, the Heat took what came to them and handled it with aplomb.
It’s Christmas time though, which means the NBA’s first big showcase. That’s keyed by a Finals rematch, Heat hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder were great last year and despite the loss of what looks like one of the best shooting guards (if not players) in the game, they’ve steamed on without a hiccup. They’re second in the league at 105.1 points per game and and first in offensive rating at 113.2 points per 100 possessions. They allow 96.2 points per game for a point differential of a ridiculous 17 points. Make no mistake, last year was anything but luck.
The Thunder are just running it right now. They just had a 12-game winning streak snapped by the same Minnesota Timberwolves that doubled the Heat up in rebounds but still lost just last week. We all know the bit – they’re fun, young, fast, bold, and don’t care about anything but winning. They’re a blast of a team, it’s just a shame Seattle couldn’t be the recipients of this. OKC is nice, sweet people all, but Seattle was robbed man.
What happened last time: The Miami Heat won the NBA Championship. Highlighted by a LeBron James triple-double and 7-of-8 threes by Mike Miller, the Heat took Game Five 121-106. In case you don’t remember, it was awesome. By the end of the game Durant, Westbrook and Harden were standing in the corner watching the coronation, no doubt visualizing themselves there before long.
Who to watch for: In this case, it’s what to watch for. The matchup between LeBron and KD is always a good one – simply, it’s the best two players in the game facing off. If LeBron is the most efficient player in the game, Durant isn’t close behind and whenever he rises up to shoot you expect points. For someone so twiggy, the guy can sure bang around on a court. His running mate, Russell Westbrook, seems to be in the process of reinventing himself. Where even a year ago he was a questionable shot-taking, ball dominating, feast or famine kind of player, he’s averaging a career high in assists at 8.8 and tied for a career low in turnovers per game at 3.4. He’s still shooting a questionable percentage (.407/..352/.789) but that will come in time, you’d think.
Though the switch to Kevin Martin from James Harden has changed the Thunder offense a bit, it’s the evolution of power forward Serge Ibaka’s offensive game that might prove to be the real key to this game, and this team’s future. It’s getting so he can hit a mid-range jumper consistently and look silky doing it, which creates more space for everyone and will lead to more thunderous dunks by Ibaka. Serge is scoring 14 a game and taking in 8.4 boards, both career highs, as well as a .566 shooting percentage and a .831 free throw percentage this year. He’s turning into a legitimate offensive threat, and if he starts hitting that shot from the elbow early, it’s going to be a long game for Miami.
Quietly, the addition of Hasheem Thabeet is giving the Thunder a boost in paint defense. He’s more athletic than Kendrick Perkins, bigger, and he’s playing with a never before seen confidence. He’s still kind of terrible, playing 12 minutes a game and fouling 2.4 times, but he rebounds, defends and gives other guys a rest. Size like that is useful, though the Heat could certainly take advantage of it.
Why the Heat will win: They are at home, they’re healthy, and this is the first real challenge they’ve faced this year. People have been questioning their viability as a repeat champion of late, and they need to recover that intimidation factor they so desire. If they crush the Thunder, and they could if they play to their fullest potential, other teams would be a little nervous to face them. Plus, the Heat have already beaten this team, though that version had a cold streak riding James Harden dragging everything down.
Why the Heat will lose: Kevin Durant has the talent of a demigod. Russell Westbrook can drop 40 on you before you even blink. Serge Ibaka’s newfound offensive game combined with paint domination is pretty hard to handle. Maybe Scott Brooks learned something about himself after the Finals, and has found a way to defeat his greatest nemesis.
Prediction: Miami 112, Oklahoma City 106. These two split the season series last year, the first one rather open and the second one with a definite playoff feel. The Heat need a signiture win and against the Thunder you can’t sign much bigger. The home crowd will have a rare regular season impact, and the Heat will reassert themselves.
Let’s be real here, this is why you watch regular season basketball. Chances are, this will look nothing like the seemingly inevitable face-off in June, but it will be a lot of fun. The NBA is a showcase league, and this is the crown jewel of the Christmas Spectacular. You’d better enjoy it. Or else you’ll get nothing but buttons and puppy dog tails next Christmas. Doesn’t that sound awful?