The All Star Break is officially behind us and it’s time to begin the real grind of the season: The Playoff push. The field has already been sorted into contenders, pretenders, and tankers. While some franchises are fighting each other to the death to earn the coveted number one draft pick, the prime time teams are jockeying for homecourt advantage in the playoffs. But out of all those teams, only three to four really scream championship. And of those teams, two scream the loudest. And that brings us to tonight.
With Russell Westbrook out of the Thunder lineup for much of the season, Kevin Durant has had to carry more of a load on his shoulders and has done so in graceful strides. He is averaging career highs in scoring (31.5 ppg, league lead), assists (5.5 apg), field goal percentage (51%, tie with last season), and steals (1.5 spg). His name has come up, not only in MVP discussion, but as the frontrunner to win it. Yet, he has another obstacle to overcome in his MVP campaign, and that’s King James himself.
This season has been Durant’s loudest statement year thus far as he competes to win the MVP award that belongs to LeBron James. The last time these two teams faced off, Durant and the Thunder got the upper hand, winning 112-95. However, the All Star break wipes the slate clean and essentially resets the season, especially for the Thunder, who will have Westbrook back in the lineup.
As much as both players understand, respect, and are vocal about the team aspect of the game of basketball, expect this game to be all about LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant. It seems that would be a no brainer way of viewing every game they play against each other, but this game holds more weight than any of their other previous regular season matchups over the years. Durant has always been emerging up until this point and the MVP discussion is finally actually a discussion. Contrary to popular belief, James has just as much to prove tonight as Durant. While James’ resume speaks for itself, Durant is no longer knocking on his door; He’s kicked it down and is looking James in the eye asking, “What are you going to do about it?” Expect the four time MVP to answer that question this evening.
What will truly be interesting, not just tonight, but going forward, is how well Westbrook will fit into the OKC nucleus. Having been gone for so long, the Thunder have learned to play without him and have excelled at doing so (20-7 sans Westbrook). Westbrook has always played the game with an edge as if he had something to prove. Now that he’s accepted widely as one of the league’s elites, is able to transform that ‘gotta-prove-it-ness’ into efficiency. This will be his second return stint this season and it would be best for him and his team to avoid a possible, unfortunate Derrick Rose situation. With all these factors to consider, will his game acquiesce to Durant’s uber stellar performance? Will his presence form the symbiotic fluidity with Durant’s we’ve become accustomed to seeing over the recent couple of seasons, or could we possibly see the Westbrook of old that seemed to be more in the way than helpful?
What to watch for:
Look for Westbrook to try to find his groove early, but mostly distribute as the game progresses. Reggie Jackson’s contributions will be important as Westbrook should be (and hopefully will be) eased back into the rotation.
KD vs. LeBron … um, duh
Dwyane Wade’s legs. If he’s Flash, it could be a long night for OKC. If he’s off, he could be an easy target for the Thunder.
Chris Bosh, the silent forgotten one. LeBron’s (and possibly Wade’s) penetration will force Serge Ibaka’s help all night and Kendrick Perkins is utterly useless, so expect Bosh to have a field day under the rim, on the boards and stretching the floor.
Miami – Penetration. Kendrick Perkins’ ineptitude is often masked by Serge Ibaka’s incredible athleticism and ability to recover. MOST teams don’t have multiple all star wings like LeBron James and (a healthy) Dwyane Wade. I expect Ibaka to get caught overhelping.
OKC – Two things. Get out of KD’s way and get open. He’ll handle the rest. On the off chance he can’t, you’ll be wide open. Hit the shots.
Miami – KD. Most teams would focus mostly on KD, obviously. I say the contrary. Eliminate everybody else. Make him score 60. He scored 43 points to beat the measly Lakers by four points. These are not the Lakers. If KD has no help, the Thunder will lose miserably.
OKC – Don’t make the mistake of forgetting Chris Bosh, especially with his touch from deep. Ibaka will have the tough job of covering Bosh, while managing paint penetration.
There’s no stopping LeBron, but the Thunder’s bigs will have a big role in clogging the paint and minimizing his buckets/assists from under the basket. Steven Adams and Nick Collison will have important roles off the bench.
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