It's a rematch of the 2012 NBA Finals and possible preview of the 2014 title tilt.
When the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat share the hardwood, the games have a tendency of taking on historical significance. Wednesday's clash will be no different.
Kevin Durant has donned his best MVP costume without perennial All-Star Russell Westbrook (out since Dec. 25 following his third knee surgery since April). KD has pumped in 30-plus points in 11 straight games, the longest such streak since Tracy McGrady did it 14 consecutive times in March and April 2003, per Kevin Pelton of ESPN Insider.
As for the Heat, their ranks are filling—a scary thought considering they already feature the best player on the planet, LeBron James, and best third wheel in the business, Chris Bosh.
Former No. 1 pick Greg Oden (who went more than four years between appearances thanks to a pair of troublesome knees) has now played three straight games for Miami. Dwyane Wade (battling his own knee demons) returned after a four-game absence in Miami's 113-101 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday.
The rich appear to be getting richer, and Wednesday's action could shine a light on which of these elite teams is ready to make a run at the ultimate treasure in June.
|OKC Thunder||Miami Heat|
|Field-Goal Percentage Allowed||42.6||46.0|
Time: Wednesday, Jan. 29, 7 p.m. ET
Location: AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami, Fla.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook out (knee)
How Oklahoma City Wins
The Thunder haven't had much luck against the Heat with Westbrook in the lineup, so perhaps they'll fare better against the two-time defending champs without him.
Dating back to the 2012 NBA Finals, OKC has lost six straight games to Miami. The Thunder are just 3-8 against the Heat since the Big Three came together in 2010.
But Miami hasn't dealt with this Durant before.
The one averaging 38.5 points (on .546/.417/.875 shooting), 6.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.0 blocks over this torrid 11-game stretch. The one CBS Sports' Matt Moore said is pacing the MVP field "and the race isn't close at this point." The one who starts games like Clayton Kershaw and closes them like Mariano Rivera.
KD will need another special performance to keep his team within striking distance, but his teammates will be responsible for pushing the Thunder clear of the mighty Heat.
Even the best solo act in the business can't dethrone the kings by himself.
OKC needs an all-hands-on-deck approach at the offensive end. The stat sheet might still pin this team as a defensive club (99.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, third overall), but it's taken a more offensive slant without Westbrook:
OKC offense has been better since Westbrook injury (+1.8 ORtg); Thunder defense has been worse (-3.3 DRtg).— Matthew R Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) January 28, 2014
Luckily, the Thunder have a number of scorers to throw at the Heat. All of them have helped power OKC to a league-leading eight-game winning streak.
Serge Ibaka (17.6 points), Reggie Jackson (16.5) and Jeremy Lamb (10.4) have each outperformed their season averages (14.6, 13.5 and 10.0, respectively) during this stretch. Miami isn't the defensive power it's been in recent seasons (tied for 11th in defensive rating, tied for 20th in opponent's field-goal percentage), so OKC's offensive depth could be a real boost.
This needs to be a sleeves-rolled-up kind of game for the Thunder.
Hustle plays can hurt the Heat. Miami has been susceptible on the offensive glass (1.15 points allowed per possession on offensive rebounds, 15th overall) and against transition attacks (1.14, 12th), via Synergy Sports (subscription required). If there's a loose ball to be had, OKC needs to find a way to track it down.
With a little ball control (i.e., limiting fast-break chances for the Heat), plenty of KD and enough out of the supporting cast, the Thunder could do something they haven't done in a long time—beat the Heat.
How Miami Wins
Something is happening in South Beach right now; I'm just not sure what it is.
The Heat, winners of three straight, could be snapping out of their midseason malaise. They might simply be getting healthy. Or they're taking advantage of a well-timed scheduling break (their last three opponents: Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and a Spurs team missing three starters).
Chances are we're seeing little bits of all three.
On the medical front, the Heat should be entering this contest at full strength:
Dwyane Wade said after Heat practice today he expects to return to starting lineup tomorrow against Thunder.— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) January 28, 2014
That should be a good thing, provided Bosh maintains his aggression with Wade back in the mix. Even Bosh admitted the jury's still out on that one.
"Sometimes, some shots that I shoot, if [Wade is] into a good rhythm and playing, then I probably won’t take those," he said, via Joseph Goodman of the The Miami Herald, "but they still come within the flow of the offense.”
Bosh has turned up his involvement of late, and his stat sheet has followed suit. Over his last seven games, he's averaging 24.0 points on 16.1 field-goal attempts per game (well above his season averages of 16.8 and 12.1, respectively), while shooting 61.1 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from outside.
"That's huge for them if they can get those points and that efficiency from him," Spurs center Tim Duncan said, via Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel (subscription required). "That's a game changer."
It's hard to overstate Bosh's importance.
The addition of a three-point stroke (37.2 percent on the year) creates optimal spacing for James and Wade to attack. It also frees up Oden and Chris Andersen to do their jobs in the paint.
Against OKC, Bosh will either need to keep the shot-blocking Ibaka (2.6 per game) or the bruising Kendrick Perkins occupied. If Bosh can weaken the Thunder's interior, then James and Wade can exploit the openings. The more attention OKC has to pay to protecting the paint, the less time it can spend keeping Miami's shooters (the Heat shoot 37.4 percent from downtown, seventh overall) in check.
The Heat need to threaten the Thunder defense in as many ways as possible. If OKC's scorers are expending energy at the defensive end, they'll only have so much wind at the opposite side.
James is going to be dominant. Those four MVP trophies in his collection suggest as much.
Everything else for Miami is a wild card. If Bosh stays aggressive, Wade gives as much effort as his body will allow and the Heat can get solid production out of at least one other group—be it their bigs or their shooters—Miami will keep this a lopsided rivalry.
How often are the Heat involved in a game featuring a player on a historical surge and that player is not LeBron James?
Which championship contender do you like in this game?
Durant is on a different plane right now. Both the volume and the efficiency of his offense are special. Someone's going to get him out of this groove, but it's anyone's guess as to when that will happen.
Something tells me the Heat will be the ones meeting that challenge.
They need to be tested, and there may not be a tougher assignment than catching the league's hottest star leading the league's hottest team.
Measuring-stick matchups don't often come around midseason in Miami. But when they do, the Heat seem to find a way to answer that call.
KD might be coming for his throne, but this league—and this game—still belongs to King James.
Heat 106, Thunder 101