There's a laundry list of teams willing to do so, but only a select few actually have the personnel to end the Heat's run of supremacy and prevent them from joining the list of squads that have won three titles in a row.
The Indiana Pacers are one. The San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers may be a few others, though they're all in the Western Conference and only one would actually get a shot at the Heat in the NBA Finals.
However, it's the Oklahoma City Thunder who have emerged as the biggest threat to Miami's three-peat hopes and dreams.
Led by Kevin Durant, OKC toppled the Heat in American Airlines Arena on Jan. 29 with a blowout victory, and that allowed the team to move to 37-10 on the season. Even without Russell Westbrook, who will eventually return after his knee heals up, the Thunder have emerged as the class of the Western Conference.
And that might make them the class of the NBA as well.
This Durant Guy
We need to come up with a new term, because "on fire" can't possibly be used to describe a man who has dropped at least 30 points in each of his last dozen outings, including a 46-point game, a 48-point outburst and a 54(!!!!)-point shellacking of the overmatched Golden State Warriors.
During that stretch, Durant is averaging a scorching 38 points per game. But it's not like he's only scoring.
He's also putting up 6.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists per contest, and he's doing so while posting ridiculous efficiency numbers. How do you average 38 per game and shoot 54.4 percent from the field, 42 percent beyond the arc and 87.9 percent at the stripe?
Normally, you just don't.
However, Durant clearly isn't normal.
He's bound to come off his hot streak at some point and post—gasp—a line that doesn't include more than 30 points. I know, I know. It's hard to believe.
But it's not like he's suddenly going to take a gigantic step backward. While becoming the premier MVP candidate (and really, you'd be crazy to argue LeBron over Durant for the award at this point in the season), KD has consistently shown that he's a tremendous all-around player.
More impressive than Kevin Durant’s dominance as a scorer is his evolution into a complete player on both ends. #Thunder— Ethan Norof (@Mr_Norof) January 30, 2014
His facilitating has been phenomenal, he's been a presence on the glass and he's playing better defense than ever before. Try to pick out which player he is (stats from Basketball-Reference, 82games.com and Synergy Sports (subscription required):
|Player||SF PER Against||PF PER Against||DRtg||Defensive Win Shares||Points per Possession Allowed|
It's a sweep for Player Y.
Oh, and that happens to be Durant. Player X is LeBron, who is typically heralded as one of the best individual defenders in the business.
As B/R's Dan Favale writes while explaining in detail how Durant has become a dominant all-around force, "The Oklahoma City Thunder superstar isn't some one-trick pony riding the coattails of a single above-average attribute. He's more."
Durant is standing in the way of the Heat's three-peat dreams, and that's a big deal at this point. Remember, we're talking about a small forward who told the world via Sports Illustrated in April that he was tired of finishing second.
"I've been second my whole life. I was the second-best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I've been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals," espoused Durant. "I'm tired of being second. I'm not going to settle for that. I'm done with it.”
That was before he bowed out in the second round of the playoffs once Westbrook went down following a collision with Patrick Beverley during the first-round matchup with the Houston Rockets.
Do you think that assuaged the fire inside his belly? Do you think finishing less than second helped him realize that coming in first is overrated?
Far from it. But the motivation stems from more than his own individual desires.
The Experience that Shepherds Along Motivation
The Dallas Mavericks were motivated to win the 2011 NBA Finals, simply because they'd advanced that far and the Larry O'Brien Trophy was in sight. But there had to be a little part of them that wanted revenge for what happened in 2006, when Dwyane Wade helped lead the Heat on to victory at the expense of Dirk Nowitzki's squad.
Well, a similar scenario will unfold if the Thunder end up in a last-round matchup with Miami this year, just as they did in 2012.
Remember what happened?
The Thunder won Game 1 behind 36 points from Durant, but that was their lone victory in the series. Game 2 wasn't close until the end, Game 3 was a tight defensive struggle in which 91 points got the victory, Game 4 saw the Heat overcome a 43-spot from Russell Westbrook and Game 5 wasn't close after halftime.
Sure, OKC was competitive. But a 4-1 series defeat is still a 4-1 series defeat, and you can bet that almost everyone on the roster remembers exactly what happened.
Plus, that roster is largely similar to the one that came oh-so-close in 2012. Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison and Derek Fisher are all still members of the rotation, and the starting lineups may end up being the exact same.
The Thunder have been here before, which helps. But they've also been defeated, which helps work them up even more.
Durant may have exited the court and cried in the arms of his mother, but you can be sure he was also vowing revenge through his tears.
As competitive as he is, how could he not?
Scott Brooks is Figuring it Out
One of the biggest knocks against Oklahoma City over the last few seasons has been the stubbornness of Scott Brooks.
Normally, he's one of the better coaches in the Association, but he's notoriously stubborn to a fault. Brooks sometimes has trouble making halftime adjustments, and he insists on keeping his rotations the same, even when they're detrimental to his team's efforts.
That's the only explanation for playing Perkins with such frequency, especially when the Thunder could either let Steven Adams develop or use a small-ball lineup that fits in with what most of the NBA is doing.
Here are some interesting Perkins facts from the 2013-14 season:
- He has recorded more turnovers than made shots.
- He has more than twice as many fouls than made shots.
- He has recorded nearly six times more fouls than blocks.
- He's shooting a career-worst 44.4 percent form the field.
- According to Basketball-Reference, his 6.5 PER is the worst mark of his career.
- He's playing 19.6 minutes per game.
One of those things is not like the other.
Fortunately, Brooks is seeing the light and realizing that he's actually allowed to make adjustments based on matchups.
Against a small-ball team like the Heat, Perkins just isn't needed. And the head coach reacted accordingly during the last clash between the two powers, letting the pharaoh-bearded big man play only five minutes in the 112-95 victory over the defending champions.
The Twitter world reacted as you might expect:
Perkins has never really been effective against MIAs small-ball lineup. Cost OKC repeatedly in '12 Finals. Finally adjusted tonight for once— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) January 30, 2014
Heat shoulda played the long game and let Perkins dunk a few times— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) January 30, 2014
Weird to hear Brooks getting praised for benching Perkins. Not trying to overlook how hard it is, but it's what he SHOULD be doing.— Brett Koremenos (@BKoremenos) January 30, 2014
Trust me, that's only a small sampling. There was universal excitement that Brooks was finally making the right decision with Perkins' playing time.
Finally, Brooks realized that small ball was the right route against the defending champions, and that makes the Thunder even more dangerous. While they were playing the wrong style, they were still highly competitive.
And now we've witnessed firsthand what can happen when the right group of players is used.
"I figured they would (go small)," LeBron told B/R's Ethan Skolnick after falling to the Thunder. "They have some guys that can play multiple positions as well, like we have."
It worked. And it might work again.
As Skolnick wrote, "He (Brooks) finally found the right style to fit this particular matchup. He went long. It was a long, long time coming."
Are the Thunder title favorites?
That final sentence could also apply to Durant winning a title.
It's his time, and the stars are starting to align for his inevitable run at ending the Heat's reign of supremacy in the NBA. Between his blossoming into an all-around stud, the inherent motivation that comes with dethroning a two-time defending champion while avenging a loss from two years ago and the newfound flexibility of Brooks, the pieces are in place.
Maybe Durant will finally stop feeling like he always comes in second.