Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
After losing in Miami on Christmas Day, can Kevin Durant and the Thunder hold serve at home on Thursday?
While most of the NBA is already on vacation or en route to Houston, the Heat and the Thunder have one more bit of business to attend to before All-Star Weekend. The two teams square off on Thursday night in one of the most anticipated games of the regular season.
Chesapeake Energy Arena is one of the loudest arenas in the NBA and it should be rocking for a rematch of last season's NBA Finals. The Heat have won all four games since the last time these two teams met in Oklahoma City: Games 3-5 of the Finals and their 103-97 victory on Christmas Day.
They come into Thursday night's game on an absolute tear. They've won seven consecutive games, thanks mainly to the historic exploits of LeBron James. A year after he won his first NBA championship, LeBron has taken his game to an almost unimaginable level, becoming the first player in league history to average more than 30 points on 60 percent shooting for six straight games.
Yet as well as LeBron's been playing, Kevin Durant has made a compelling case for the MVP award this season too. Durant has responded to James Harden's departure by becoming a more all-around player. Not only is he averaging 27 points on 52/43/90 shooting, he also has career highs in rebounds (6.1), assists (4.5) and steals (1.5).
But while most of the attention will be on the two stars and the race for the MVP award, the game will probably be decided by the play of their supporting casts. Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook have quietly put together All-NBA caliber seasons in their respective backcourts, while Serge Ibaka will likely get the task of staying with Chris Bosh, whose averaging 18 points on 55 percent shooting this season, an almost LeBron-like level of offensive efficiency.
Hot Hot Hoops, SB Nation's Heat blog, has a look at how Miami will try to contain Westbrook. Welcome To Loud City, SB Nation's Thunder blog, breaks down all the relevant match-ups in the run up to the game.
Of particular interest will be the coaching decisions made by Erik Spoelstra and Scott Brooks. In last season's Finals, Spoelstra had a lot of success going small and attacking Kendrick Perkins, a muscle-bound and lead-footed center whose deficiencies on both sides of the ball -- a lack of lateral quickness or an offensive game of any kind -- were repeatedly exposed as Miami won four consecutive games.
Will Brooks counter a front-court of LeBron, Bosh and Shane Battier by going small? Can the Thunder big men take advantage of a smaller Heat front-line on the glass? Or will both teams save any strategic adjustments for a possible meeting next June?
While every game in February means the same in the standings, to paraphrase Animal Farm, some games are more equal than others. Oklahoma City, who opened as 5.5 point favorites, will try to send a statement with the whole NBA watching. The game will tip at 8 p.m. ET on TNT.