Tonight’s TNT Thursday will be the last two regular season games we’ll see for a few days as the league breaks for All-Star Weekend, but the league is leaving us on a high note with two scintillating match-ups that are bound to be a lot of fun.
The first match up is the rematch from the 2012 NBA Finals. Both sides have motored along the season as pundits and fans expected, with the only notable surprises being the James Harden swap and LeBron James’ historical season. The Heat are coming into this game and some impressive wins, the Thunder looking to rebound from a loss to the Jazz.
Miami Heat vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
It’s fitting in the week that Michael Jordan turns 50, LeBron James puts together one of the most impressive stretches seen in basketball history. With the Heat’s most recent win over the Blazers, LeBron became the first player in NBA history to score 30 points and shoot upwards of 60% in six straight games. Stopping LeBron James, who torched the Thunder for 29 last time out, will be at the top of the Thunder’s list.
Clash of the Titans: LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant
Dispel the notion of LeBron James being passive down the stretch, or that he’s not as great a scorer as some say, or he’s not a very intelligent player. Not only in his recent stretch, but essentially since the beginning of last season’s playoffs, King James has been unstoppable. He sits third in league for points, eleventh for assists (the next forward on the list is Nicolas Batum at twenty-nine), seventh in field goal percentage and at twenty-sixth for rebounding.
As it is for any side facing the Heat, the Thunder knows they can’t quell James – they can only do what they can to nullify his effect by scoring at the other end. Fortunately for OKC, they have the best player in the league to do so in Kevin Durant. On par for his fourth consecutive scoring title, Durant is putting in an average of 29 points per game and managed to net 33 against Miami last time.
With the difference in each man’s scoring numbers and ability split so narrowly (Durant averages more points, but LeBron does so more efficiently), one should turn their attention to defense, where the battle isn’t nearly as close. There’s not many numbers to measure a player’s capabilities on defense, but it’s no secret that LeBron James is among the elite in the league. He’s helped by his incredible size and athleticism of course, but his often underrated court IQ helps him stay two moves ahead of his man. James will be one of the Durant’s toughest defensive assignments he’ll play this season, and he’ll require a significant effort to keep pace with LeBron James and his incredible recent output.
The key for the Thunder to slow LeBron James falls largely upon the big Serge Ibaka. LeBron takes most of his shots in the paint, and keeping him out of there would go a long way to cutting down his scoring – especially when Durant can put his 7’5 wingspan in the face of James if he pulls up to shoot. For that reason, Ibaka needs to work in tandem with Durant to shut down any driving lanes, but also needs to be ready to spring back out to the perimeter if his opponent, who will likely be Shane Battier for a lot of the night, leaks out to receive a kick-out pass from LeBron James. What makes James to deadly is not simply his ability to score, but also his ability to see over the defense and whip a bullet pass to seemingly anywhere on the floor.
The Other Guys: Russell Westbrook & Dwyane Wade
Both of these teams lack a killer bench, instead aiming to offset any shortcomings their second unit has with their stellar starters. With five combined All-Stars between the two starting line-ups, that’s totally acceptable; but it also means those five All-Stars are all crucial and can ill afford many off nights. This rings especially true for Russell Westbrook, who is now the only star behind Durant since his buddy off of the bench James Harden is over in Houston. In the sole encounter between the Heat and Thunder this season, Westbrook struggled with his shot, going 5-19 and only managing to dish 3 assists while turning it over 4 times. With the only true point guard behind him being the sparingly used Reggie Jackson, it is essential Westbrook finds better ways to get the number one scorer in the game KD the ball.
But the most damning aspect of Westbrook’s last game against the Heat wasn’t his average offensive outing, but more his dreadful work on the normally quiet Mario Chalmers. Chalmers buried 20, scoring one less point than Westbrook but taking 5 less shots. More importantly, Chalmers dropped in 4-8 from deep. Preventing these kinds of performances from beyond the arc is another essential aspect for the Thunder, and is part of how they must play LeBron James. Even if Durant manages to play James well, and even if Ibaka closes up the driving lane and forces a pass, the rest of the team need to play their man closely and keep them from getting good looks to prevent James finding an open man for an easy jumpshot.
Wade, on the other hand, needs to simply ensure he manages to get his points to support LeBron James. Dwyane Wade scores 6 points less and his shooting percentage drops by over 12% when the Heat lose. To put it in perspective, had Wade managed to meet his average scoring total in losses; the Heat could have won four additional games and narrowed the margin to 1 on two more occasions.
Dwyane Wade will be matched up against Thabo Sefolosha again. Last outing, Sefolosha made life hard for Wade and is expected by Scott Brooks to do so again. In the 21 minutes the two shared the court, Wade shot a dismal 13%. He managed to find his footing in the other 17 minutes with the Thunder guard sitting, going 78% from the field and doubling his +/- differential. Sefolosha is one of the finest perimeter defenders in the NBA, and if Westbrook can have a big game while Wade stays quiet, the Thunder have a much better shot at winning.
If the Heat want to get over the line, it’ll likely come behind another classic performance from LeBron James. They’ll have to hit the boards and try to limit the Thunders’ second chance opportunities, and ensure one of Oklahoma City’s role players don’t get into rhythm. Players like Kevin Martin and Serge Ibaka can devastate a team if they get too wrapped up in limiting Durant and Westbrook. Similarly, the Thunder must ensure the defensive anchor Kendrick Perkins does his job against the smaller, agile Chris Bosh to limit the Heat’s third All-Star from having a big night.