The NBA Finals rematch between the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder was certainly worthy of its top billing on Christmas Day. LeBron James nearly tallied his second holiday triple-double in three seasons, Kevin Durant racked up 33 points and the defending champions protected their house with a thrilling 103-97 win over the visitors from the Sooner State.
The game was a treat for diehard fans and casual observers alike. But the greater gift to the basketball world would be to have these two teams—clearly the best in the NBA—going head-to-head again next June.
Which, if the dominoes continue to fall as they have all season, seems as good a bet as any.
The result moved Miami back into the top spot in the Eastern Conference with a record of 19-6. The New York Knicks were gracious enough to give it up by way of a 100-94 loss to the newly-whole Los Angeles Lakers.
The Heat have had their own foibles, of course, not the least of which have come at New York's hand. The Knicks have twice trounced LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and company in 20-point blowouts in 2012-13. The first, which came in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, was proved nary a fluke by the second, which came at American Airlines Arena without the benefit of Carmelo Anthony.
Though, truth be told, the Knicks aren't the only team to have made Miami appear less than prepared for a repeat through the first third of the campaign. The up-and-comers of the Western Conference (i.e. the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors) have pulled out wins at the Heat's expense. Lower-tier teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Houston Rockets have come close, but only the Washington Wizards have managed to head home with the proverbial cigar.
On the whole, the Heat's small-ball offense has been spectacular—second in the league in points per 100 possessions—though the defense has left much to be desired in terms of both effort and execution.
But, as damning as all of this may seem in sum, it hasn't hindered the Heat's pursuit of victory from night to night. Nor has it gotten in the way of Miami flipping the switch for big games.
Not entirely, anyway. The Christmas Day affair was proof of as much. They held the league's second-sweetest shooting team to 42.3 percent from the field. They forced 16 turnovers while stifling OKC's passing; the Thunder finished the game with a mere 14 assists.
On the other end, the contributions from the bench were sparse, but Miami managed to survive off performances of 20 points or more from three different starters. LeBron was brilliant (29 points, eight rebounds, nine assists), Dwyane Wade was dynamic (21 points, five rebounds, three assists) and Chris Bosh (16 points, six boards) contributed to the cause in a timely manner. As a team, Miami also outscored the Thunder in the paint, 42-28, despite operating without a true post presence.
The Heat turned it on when they needed to, just as they did during their run to the Larry O'Brien Trophy this past spring, and just as they figure to do once mid-April rolls around.
The Thunder should have things under control out West by then. The December 25th defeat dropped OKC behind the surging Clippers in the race for first place in the conference, though they've already topped L.A.'s "other" team head-to-head this season. In fact, the Thunder are the only team whose average point differential (plus-8.3) even comes close to that of the Clippers (plus-9.6) and who can boast a win streak comparable to LA's current 14-game tear.
Like the Clips (and the Heat), the Thunder have come to rely heavily on the efforts of a few central stars, around whom they've carefully situated a cast of role players. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are still scoring at top-tier clips, and have taken on more playmaking duties since James Harden's departure. Serge Ibaka has emerged as more than just a spring-loaded shot-blocker thanks to the refinement of his mid-range jumper. And Kevin Martin will never replace The Beard in full, though he's shooting well enough to warrant his own consideration for Sixth Man of the Year.
With the former three continuing to mature and the latter blending in beautifully, the Thunder have established themselves as, perhaps, the favorite to defend their Western Conference crown. They're one of three teams, along with the Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs, to boast a top-10 ranking in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Furthermore, they boast the experience of having played in the Finals (and suffering a crippling defeat therein) before.
A defeat that seems likely to befall them again should they meet Miami again in June, at least if the latest chapter is any indication. Some of the faces (i.e. Kevin Martin, Ray Allen) were new, but the script reeked of deja vu. Both teams fought valiantly, with LeBron and Durant dueling in the eye of the storm. The game was close throughout and hung in the balance until the closing moments.
And, as was the case at the end of the 2011-12 season, the Thunder were undone by their own mistakes. OKC's super-sub failed to convert a pair of crucial baskets, though this time, it was Kevin Martin coming up short on layups in transition. Westbrook was once again caught in the nebulous space between Good Russ (21 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, two steals) and Bad Russ (5-of-19 shooting, five turnovers, 20-plus-point games from Wade and Mario Chalmers). OKC head coach Scott Brooks stubbornly insisted on keeping Kendrick Perkins in during crunch time despite his ineffectiveness against Miami's undersized lineup having long been entered into the public record.
The Thunder had their chances to take the lead in the final minute, but succumbed to defensive confusion when it mattered most. Bosh took advantage of the situation with a wide-open dunk that pushed OKC into scramble mode.
Of course, this was just one regular-season game in a campaign with two thirds of the schedule remaining. Perhaps the Thunder will get their act together in key moments, Westbrook will minimize his miscues and/or OKC general manager Sam Presti will shake up the status quo with an in-season trade. Perhaps the Heat will fail to recapture the magic of 2012, see one or more of their stars succumb to injury and/or come to realize, like so many teams before them, that flipping the switch isn't so easy after all.
Perhaps one or both of these teams will fail to advance to the final round of the playoffs. The possibilities are endless, and the list of potential challengers for each changes by the week.
But if the Heat and the Thunder parlay their Christmas classic into another seven-game showdown to close out the spring, don't be surprised if we see more of the same.
That is, compelling basketball, with the hardware returning to South Beach.
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