Feb 14, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) greets Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) during the first half at the Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

How important is tonight’s OKC Thunder vs. Miami Heat game?

For the first time this season, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat will meet. Tonight at 6 p.m. CST on ESPN, two of the best teams and certainly the two best players in the league will go head-to-head.

The Thunder come in with the better record despite Russell Westbrook’s absence since Christmas. Miami has been struggling this month while Kevin Durant has been playing the best basketball of his career.

For everything the Thunder have accomplished this season, there is a lot riding on this game. The great record, Durant’s great play will all mean a little less if the Thunder struggle against Miami.

The Thunder have lost to the Heat the last six times they have played them. They lost the last four games to them in the 2012 NBA Finals and both meetings last season.

During that stretch, you could accurately say that the Thunder look a little helpless against what Miami does. The spacing and utilization of Shane Battier at the four has given the Thunder fits. Kendrick Perkins seems as valueless as ever in this matchup and Miami is the only team in the league that possesses a player who has been better than Durant.

The Thunder won 60 games, a franchise record, last season. But most people still didn’t consider them a title favorite and a big part of that was their struggles against the Heat, who most had as a shoo-in for another Finals berth. The thought process was: If you can’t beat the team you are likely going to see in the Finals, and the matchup in particular is such a bad one, we’re going to assume there is some flaw with this team. Another poor showing against the Heat this season could result in the same type of feeling about the Thunder.

The other big thing on the line is Durant’s MVP candidacy. Even if LeBron outplays Durant head-to-head, if there numbers remain close to what they currently are, Durant should win the MVP. The higher PER, win shares, etc. has Durant deserving this hardware. But the perception of Durant is he is outplayed by LeBron tonight and/or the next time these teams play will play a large role in the MVP voting.

LeBron has always been a tough matchup for Durant. It really wasn’t until two years ago that Durant even started having games where he would outplay LeBron, and it wasn’t every night, LeBron has still been getting the better of KD.

The idea is beginning to be brought up that this may be the season that Durant is starting to overtake LeBron. His numbers are better, but LeBron’s are still insane, and in a class by themselves in many ways. The Thunder are winning more as well and doing so without Westbrook, but LeBron and the Heat have been to the last three Finals so we can surely cut them some slack in the regular season.

As far as I’m concerned, Durant doesn’t need to overtake LeBron this season. LeBron is still at the peak of his powers this season and should still be considered the best player in the NBA. Durant is definitely closing the gap though and for the Thunder, they are hoping that he has closed the gap enough to put the team in a better position to get the best of Miami in this matchup.

So how important is tonight? Should the outcome really matter that much?

It is just a regular season game. The Thunder won’t have Westbrook and Miami doesn’t look like they are in playoff form yet either. While things like this should be taken into consideration, they probably won’t be. ESPN will build this game into something more than it actually is, and tomorrow morning we’ll get to hear every talking head out there analyze why KD/LeBron should win the MVP and why the Thunder/Heat will win the NBA Finals.

Part of me even wants to think about the matchup from this perspective: It’s a lot easier to beat the Heat four out of nine times in a season than five or six times out of nine. I know there is a ton of time between tonight and a potential future Finals showdown between OKC and Miami, but I think there is something to this. There’s something to not beating a team in the regular season and then taking them by surprise in a playoff series.

But really, the Thunder kind of need to feel what it’s like to beat the Heat. It’s been awhile and this could start getting in their head if they lose tonight in the same fashion that they have been in this matchup.

As far as a prediction, it’s tough to say. Based on what the two teams have been doing lately, you’d have to say the Thunder should be favored. But you know Miami will be up for this game and the Thunder have a couple of streaks (eight-straight wins, 11 straight games in which KD has scored 30-plus) that may be due to come to an end soon, especially against an opponent like this. I honestly think Miami will just be very ready for this game and if they have Dwyane Wade, it’s going to be real tough for OKC.

Even if they lose, it’s more about what the Thunder look like in this matchup. Can they get to their spots on offense? Are they going to give up a million open threes while Serge Ibaka looks lost? Will LeBron be able to contain Durant?

Those are some of the questions we will have answered tonight in this regular season matchup that feels like much, much more than just that.

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Tags: Miami Heat Oklahoma City Thunder

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