For the second straight year, the marquee Christmas Day NBA matchup will be a rematch of the previous year's NBA Finals. Something says, though, that this year's rematch will be more competitive than last year's Heat-Mavericks blowout.
The Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder both come into this game on a roll. The Thunder had won 12 in a row before losing last Thursday in Minnesota, while the Heat have won six of seven, with the only loss coming to the Golden State Warriors at the buzzer. Both have navigated fairly easy schedules, but they have also won in impressive fashion.
The Thunder's offense has not missed a beat without James Harden, and that's been the key to their success. Oklahoma City is first in the NBA in points scored per 100 possessions, and they've done it by transferring a lot of Harden's load to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Both players are doing much more playmaking, and save for the occasional poor shot selection of Westbrook, the team has benefited. Serge Ibaka has also stepped up his offensive game, while Kevin Martin has slid in beautifully as a floor-spacing shooter off the bench.
The Heat, meanwhile, seemed to have solved their confusing defensive issues that plagued them early in the season. They have risen to 13th in defensive efficiency, which is significant because they were deep into the 20s last month. They've held teams to below 106 points per 100 possessions in each of their last seven games and below 100 points per 100 possessions in three of those games. The Heat's effort will have some ebbs and flows during the season, but they appear to be locked in this month.
Game time: 5:30 p.m. ET
STAR WATCH: Will James and Durant guard each other? Scott Brooks was reluctant to match the two players up much in the Finals, even when James went to power forward. Will he change his tune in this game? More importantly, how much will either player spend at the four position? James has started alongside Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh recently, while Durant has played very little at power forward this year.
X-FACTOR: Has Ibaka improved enough to have more of an impact on this game than he did during the Finals? The Heat's small lineups neutralized him during the finals, forcing him to be the anchor of a defense when he wasn't ready. However, Ibaka has grown up a lot this year on both ends of the floor, and if he can play like he has all year, the Heat have no answer for him.
KEY TREND TO WATCH: The obvious: the Heat's defense against the Thunder's offense. Have the Thunder's young players learned enough to attack a Heat defense that is locked in right now?
PREDICTION: Thunder 108, Heat 106.