There's no Christmas Day game like a rematch of last year's NBA Finals, and that's what the fans will get when the Oklahoma City Thunder head to Miami to take on the Heat. Miami won last season's Finals in five games, and the Thunder have been playing all season as though they are out for revenge. The team just lost its first game following a 12-game winning streak, but still owns the NBA's best record at 21-5.
Miami has also performed well this season, going 18-6 and ranking first in the Eastern Conference. However, the team has not been without certain noticeable flaws.
Unlike last season, the Heat are not playing with any sense of urgency on defense. They rank second-to-last in rebounding and 15th in points allowed. As a result, they have struggled against teams with more size and have resorted to their usual trick of victory by overwhelming offense.
That isn't going to fly against the Thunder. Oklahoma City may not have the dynamic James Harden anymore, but that has not stopped the team from performing at a remarkably high level. Everyone on the team has improved following last season, and nobody will stop until confetti is falling from the rafters and the Larry O'Brien trophy is in Oklahoma City.
Of course, the road to a ring likely goes through Miami, and multiple times. On Christmas Day, they'll march into American Airlines Arena and be ready to go in what will shape up to be one of the best games of the season.
Time: Tuesday, December 25th, 5:30 p.m. EST
Records: Oklahoma City Thunder (21-5) vs. Miami Heat (18-6)
Betting Lines: Oklahoma City (+3), Miami (-3), via Bovada
Injuries: Chris Bosh (illness, expected to play), Kevin Martin (quad, expected to play), Perry Jones (ankle, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can Thunder Avenge NBA Finals Loss with Christmas Victory in South Beach?
As great as the Thunder looked on their march to the NBA Finals last season, inexperience got the better of them. The youth behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook proved unable to come through when it counted, and the Miami Heat won their second championship, this time on the back of a LeBron James-led Big Three.
This Christmas, the Thunder are in a prime position to achieve Step One of their vengeance plan. The team as a whole looks a lot better, and so many more are contributing on offense outside of Durant and Westbrook. Serge Ibaka's newly developed offensive game has served as a great balance to his incredible defense, and has been great in helping the Thunder continue to perform well in the Western Conference.
Similarly, Kevin Martin has proven to be a fine replacement for James Harden, averaging 15.7 points off the bench and shooting 46 percent from three-point range.
As was mentioned earlier, Miami has not been the same team it was last season, despite a good record. The defense has been lax, and James has become more of a distributor rather than take control in the scoring department. That is not a bad thing by any means, but the rest of the team being on autopilot now that a championship has been won certainly is.
The fact is that the Thunder are going to be out for blood, and Miami won't be anywhere near prepared based on how they have performed all season long. Unless they can establish their suffocating defense from the get-go, this game is going to be heavily tilted in Oklahoma City's favor.
Of course, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has prepared for the incoming Thunder onslaught, which will make for a remarkably close game. These two teams want a Christmas win badly, and will provide the roaring fans with a physical battle on the hardwood.
Key Matchup: LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant
What was great about the 2012 NBA Finals was that it featured two of the NBA's best players in LeBron James and Kevin Durant facing off against one another. That matchup will be reborn again on Christmas Day, and both players will bring their unique skill sets to the table in what is sure to be an intense grudge match.
The reigning MVP (James) is having another great season, albeit one where he has not been an absolutely dominating offensive player. He is averaging 25.4 points per game, but that ranks just fifth in the NBA. Besides his points, he is posting 8.5 rebounds and 6.8 assists and is shooting an incredible 54 percent from the field.
Recently, James spoke with ESPN and said that scoring was not his first priority, but that doing everything else like rebounding and passing was. Against Kevin Durant, he must be ready to not score as many points.
Durant has been a fine scorer this season, per usual, and his 27.9 points per game ranks third in the NBA. However, he has shown a new commitment to defense this season that has certainly helped Oklahoma City continue its excellent play.
The former Texas Longhorn is averaging a career-best 8.4 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game, and has also taken two less shots per game this season than he has for his entire career. Durant has also been more conservative from long range, and as a result has shot an incredible 43 percent from long range.
Sure enough, the Thunder rank second in the NBA in scoring with 105.1 points per game, and 11th in points allowed with 96.2. Miami is decent in both departments, ranking fourth in scoring at 103.5 per contest and 15th with 97.4.
It's going to be a great game, and Durant and James will be at the heart of the battle. Whoever wins that shall win the game, and take a giant step forward in doing so.
X-Factor: Serge Ibaka
This season, the key to defeating the Miami Heat has been simple. Just out-defend them.
Miami will have their hands full of opposing defense against the Thunder, thanks to the notably improved game of one Serge Ibaka.
Prior to this season, Ibaka was primarily known as a defensive player. He led the NBA in blocks in 2012, with 3.7 per game, and also posted 7.5 rebounds.
In 2012-13, Ibaka has completely broken out. Not only is he once again leading the league in blocks with 3.1 per contest, but he is also posting a career-best 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds.
This does not bode well for Miami, who have struggled against teams with superior size all season long. Ibaka has plenty of it at 6'10", 235 pounds, and never backs down from a fight in the paint. He has a great defender's eye and is never hesitant about blocking a shot or going after a rebound, even if it means the ball going out of bounds and the other team maintaining possession.
Ibaka is going to be on the Heat on the inside like white on rice, and Miami is in trouble if they cannot get past him. Under pressure, they will likely resort to shooting from long range. Despite having great shooters in Ray Allen and Mike Miller on the roster, this will not spell success in the long-term.
The honest truth is that Miami will need to control the inside to win this game, and that means keeping Ibaka in check. If he can fight past their defense and get hot early, then the Thunder have a great chance of coming away with a victory and getting at least partial vengeance after losing to Miami in last year's NBA Finals.
The game will be close, but those in South Beach won't be having a very merry Christmas by the final buzzer. Oklahoma City is just too deep, talented and focused this year, and Miami has already proven to not play well against teams with strong interior presences.
As a result, Serge Ibaka will run wild in the paint and continue to make his case for Defensive Player of the Year. He will block shots, rebound and just outclass the Heat's big men en route to an Oklahoma City victory.
Russell Westbrook will do an excellent job of providing scoring in the backcourt, and LeBron James' taking a back seat to going crazy on offense will come back to bite him on Christmas Day. A locked-in and hungry Kevin Durant will show up with a chip on his shoulder, and thus have one of the best games of his career.
Be it Christmas magic or his phenomenal skills, Durant will just be making shot after shot tonight and going after every rebound along with Ibaka. He will want a win more than anyone on the floor, and that will make the difference in the end.
In a somewhat high-scoring contest, sunny South Beach will thus be subject to a rolling thunderstorm that will pepper the area between tipoff and the final buzzer. It won't last long, but the damage will be obvious.
The Miami Heat will know that they have just played a hard game and that the Thunder are not to be taken lightly should they cross paths again.
Oklahoma City Thunder 111, Miami Heat 104