Now that the NBA All Star Weekend has concluded, we can get back to the real world and regular season of basketball. For the Oklahoma City Thunder, that means a couple of days to rest, recover, get some practice in and get ready for the two time defending champion Miami Heat. This will be the second and final time these two teams play unless they happen to meet again in the NBA Finals as they did in 2012 when the Thunder were defeated 4-1 in the best of seven series.
In the first matchup this season, the Thunder were able to overcome a slow start, gather momentum through each quarter and come away with a very important victory. It was just a regular season game and not much else, but it marked the first time the Thunder were able to find themselves on the right side of a result since game 1 of their first NBA Finals appearance. It meant a lot to the team in terms of their confidence and to get the “curse” lifted. Playing without Russell Westbrook, they relied on the experience of Derek Fisher and it also displayed a much improved team game.
Games against top teams really show you where you are at. Stats and records only mean so much, but when you can take on an opponent the quality of Miami and get a win, it just reassures you that you are developing the right way. The weaknesses that had plagued them against the Heat in previous matchups (turnovers, small ball lineups, transition basketball) now looked more manageable – sometimes even a strength of this version of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
They pressured the Heat into turning the ball over and scored 25 points from these. Fisher hit five long range bombs and Serge Ibaka scored 22 points while Durant and James were brilliant as expected. When you have two teams who are regularly in championship contention talks, it is a case of who can execute best on the night and on January 29 that was the Thunder.
This game is another big clash between the two modern day giants. The two best players in the game will be going at each other yet again, while the supporting casts will be doing their best to out-duel the other. The Thunder will want to win this one for their own confidence again and to prove that the first time wasn’t a fluke, but they would also like to win it in front of their home crowd this time after winning on the road in Miami for their first meeting. The Miami Heat by contrast will want to make amends for their loss in January and would love to prove that Chesapeake Arena is not the fortress many teams feel it is.
A side not to this game is the status of Russell Westbrook. When Westbrook went in for his third surgery, the timetable was always going to be after the all star break and now that this deadline is approaching, there is a lot of conjecture and chatter about the status of the all star point guard. Even Kevin Durant has stated he will play! Whether he plays or not will matter little for the Thunder. While they are a better team with Russ in the lineup, they have a multifaceted offense these days and Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher proved in the first meeting that they are capable of handling the task at hand.
Circle this one on the calendar – it is sure to be an entertaining and insightful matchup. It might be the last time we see these two teams head to head this year – or it might just give us another NBA Finals preview.