Miami and Oklahoma City met less than a month ago and yet Thursday’s matchup seems to feature two very different teams.
The Heat (38-14) were blown out in Miami when they faced the Thunder (43-12), a demoralizing 112-95 loss on January 29 that was a lot less close than the final score indicates. Despite starting off that game very strong, OKC Head Coach Scott Brooks featured a small-ish lineup that gave Miami fits.
And that was without All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, who is expected to return to action Thursday night.
Westbrook’s return causes a rippling effect that could shatter the Thunder’s season-long domination, most notably how leading MVP candidate Kevin Durant will respond. Durant has thrived in Westbrook’s absence (averaging 35 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists during that stretch as OKC won 20 of 27 games). But with Russell, a fiery guard that balances incredible athleticism with a shoot-first mentality, the Thunder could be forced to redefine themselves against Miami, the NBA’s third-best team.
As for Miami, they’ve won three in a row, strong performances as part of the six-game road trip that ends against the OKC. The biggest factor for this recent success has indubitably been LeBron James, who scored a season-high 42 points in Tuesday’s win over Dallas. Beyond his gaudy scoring numbers, James just seems more determined to impose his will on every game, perhaps playing up to his potential for the first time this season. With the nationwide speculation that Durant is the favorite to unseat James as the league’s top player, look for LeBron to make this game a strong statement in this season’s résumé.
The players are being typically contradictory regarding this matchup. Durant is, at least publicly, brushing off the hype saying:
It’s not a championship game. It’s not a deciding game in the playoffs. This game is not going to get us into the playoffs or knock us out. This doesn’t really decide anything.
Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade has a very different take:
It’ll be one of our biggest challenges of the regular season. Anytime we play them (is a challenge), especially now, after losing to them at home. And bringing in Westbrook, you’re bringing in a dynamic player at home, where they play very well. We’re going to have to play as close to flawless as we can to beat this team.
With so many storylines surrounding this game – Westbrook’s return, a battle of MVP favorites and former NBA Finals foes that look to renew the rivalry this year – I’d have to agree with D-Wade that this has all the potential to be a mid-season classic.
The telecast of this game begins at 8 P.M. on TNT from the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. Check back with AllUCanHeat for a recap after the game.