No matter what happened later in the day, it would have been next to impossible to top Jeremy Lin and the Knicks on Sunday. Lin is already the biggest story in sports, and as we said last week, what makes him so incredible is that he keeps exceeding the hype. Next to New York we had two known quantities playing: The Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat
We know what to expect from those two, at least for now. Any hype they get can't be answered until playoff time, and even then, if they don't win a title their season will be looked at as a failure. But while everyone waits for May and June and looks toward Lin in February, the Heat and Thunder have quietly been blowing the doors off the rest of the league.
Miami's won nine of 11 games in February and only one of those wins has been closer than 10 points. Sunday, Orlando that felt the wrath of the Heat, to the tune of a 12-point loss that was a 20-point game late in the fourth quarter. LeBron James had an effortless 25 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists, and Dwyane Wade added 27 points. Udonis Haslem had 10 points off the bench. And from the second quarter on, the game was never close.
That's how most of their season has gone. Save for the occasional aberration, the Heat haven't just beaten people, they've run them off the court. They lead the league in offensive efficiency (107.4) and they're tied for first in point differential (+9.1). They've got the deadliest fast break in the NBA, Wade and LeBron have been dominant all year, and even Chris Bosh is chipping in whenever they need it.
The best example came last week. On the third leg of a back-to-back-to-back, the Heat were playing in Indiana, against a Pacers team desperate to prove themselves against the best of the best. The result? A game that was over by halftime, and a 15-point win that belies the 35-point lead Miami had in the fourth quarter. It was a massacre.
After playing under a microscope for nine months last year, nobody seems to notice that the twisted science experiment in Miami is finally working. Their run through last year's Eastern Conference playoffs has carried over to the regular season, where everybody looks a little hopeless by comparison.
And hey, uh, here's Bill Clinton!
Man. Imagine just traveling around the country and getting free stuff and the best tickets wherever you go. Being an ex-president would be the best. But where were we?
In Oklahoma City, the Thunder have the best record in the West, and after a few years of waiting for everything to come together for everyone's favorite young team, OKC is finally coming of age. This is happening with four different players at the same time.
- Kevin Durant -- He's the deadliest scorer in basketball, but this year he's gotten even better. He's grabbing eight rebounds per game, his assists are up, and he's still No. 3 in scoring while taking less than 20 shots per game. Sunday night, he dropped 51 points on 27 shots. That type of efficiency is insane, for one, but it also clears the way for...
- Russell Westbrook -- Another player who looks more dominant than ever. He still settles for too many jumpshots, but he attacks the rim better than any guard this side of Derrick Rose. After a few years of murmured questions about whether he can fit with KD, he's been good enough so that giving him away seems unfathomable. He's just too valuable a weapon.
- James Harden -- Maybe the most impressive of any player on the roster. You could see it in last year's playoffs -- OKC becomes a different, much better team when he's on the floor. He's the best passer on the roster, and the combination of his long range shooting and ability to find cutters (Westbrook) or guys coming off screens (Durant) makes him arguably the Thunder's most valuable player. He's the catalyst that allows the rest of the roster to work.
- Serge Ibaka -- Ibaka Blocka Flame got off to a slow start in December and January, but in February he's averaging almost 10 points per game, nine rebounds, and 4.9 (!) blocks per night. But what makes him so valuable isn't just his defense. It's the way he defends. Ibaka can cover the whole court for OKC, giving them the sort of rangy athlete (Shawn Marion) that Dallas used to vault itself to the title last season. Ibaka's not quite as quick as Marion, but what he lacks in speed he makes up for with size and, yes, shot blocking. It all adds up to one of the best defensive weapons in the league.
To keep with the "young team" theme, it's like everybody in OKC is hitting puberty at the same time. KD and Westbrook look deadlier than ever as scorers. Harden owns his role as the sixth man/glue guy better than anybody else in the league, and Ibaka gives the defense teeth that it hasn't had over the past few years. This is why they're 24-7, with the best record in the West. The only team better? You guessed it! Miami at 25-7 in the East.
Sunday was a perfect example of where we are in the NBA right now. The entire world's captivated by Jeremy Lin and the overflowing Knicks bandwagon, and with good reason. But over there in the background, we've got two sleeping giants playing better than ever, headlined by the two biggest superstars in the NBA smack in the middle of their prime. Watch them now, and you can't help thinking about the NBA Finals in June. So we'll wait to get too excited. It's not Linsanity, but if you're looking for a sensation that could exceed the hype, the Heat and Thunder could be even better.