The Oklahoma City Thunder will travel to South Beach to take on the Miami Heat Tuesday, Christmas Day for a rematch of the NBA Finals.
The biggest change to the Thunder’s lineup this season is Kevin Martin replacing James Harden as the team’s sixth man.
Overall, the Thunder haven’t missed a beat with Martin instead of Harden. They have the best record in the league at 21-5 and just had a franchise-record 12-game winning streak ended last Thursday night.
Martin has exceeded expectations averaging 15.7 points per game while shooting 46.9 percent from the field, 45.8 percent from downtown and 93.5 percent from the free throw line. He hasn’t been the playmaker Harden was but the Thunder aren’t asking him to be either.
One trend with Martin that is not encouraging however has been his poor performances against the top defenses in the league. In a loss vs. Memphis earlier this year, he scored just seven points on 1-of-4 shooting. Then at Boston, he was held to just three points in a loss.
Martin didn’t play in the Thunder’s last game at Minnesota last Thursday that they lost. OKC got only seven total points from their bench in that game as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka clearly needed another scoring option from the bench to win the game.
Martin is a very valuable piece for the Thunder, someone they will need playing at a high level for this team to be considered a true title contender. We still don’t know if he has it in him to do so against top tier competition.
Christmas Day vs. the Miami Heat will be the perfect test. The Heat have had one of the best defenses in the league since the arrival of the Big 3 although this year they have taken a step back. The Heat are just 12th overall in defensive efficiency, instead relying on their 3rd ranked offense to win games.
The regular season defense of the Heat may not be quite elite anymore to slow down Martin. But in an NBA Finals rematch, we may see the kind of Heat defense that was present in the Finals last year holding Harden to 13 points per game and 38 percent shooting.
The specific matchup between Martin and the Heat defense will come down mostly to spot-up shooting. Martin has been one of the best spot-up shooters in the NBA this season shooting 51.6 percent from three on spot-up attempts. Meanwhile, Miami is ranked only 22nd in the league defending spot-up shots.
Martin has also been a very elite isolation scorer ranking 7th in the NBA in points per possession on isolation plays. The Heat are just 19th in the league defending isolation plays and the most likely matchup of Ray Allen covering Martin will bode even better for the Thunder as well.
But it’s not just about numbers when playing elite teams. The matchup between the Thunder and Heat will be one of the few regular season games that really means something. You can imagine it would be easy for someone like Martin to get lost in the shuffle, play passive and watch Durant and Westbrook try to do everything.
The Thunder don’t want that though. Martin may not have been there last year for the loss in the Finals but he is very much part of this team this year.
If Martin is held to 10 or fewer points and takes only a couple shots, we will be watching the Heat celebrate a win this Christmas. But if the ball movement is there for the Thunder and Martin is aggressive shooting threes and pump faking and taking his man to the rim, OKC will be in good shape.
Many believe the NBA season doesn’t really start until Christmas Day. Whether that’s true or not, one thing we know for sure is that we will be in for a good one at 5:30 p.m. EST when the Thunder and Heat take the court.