State of the Heat: OKC hardly formidable foe
Remember when there was dread whenever the ratings-killing San Antonio Spurs showed up for the NBA Finals?
Well, it's time to bring back the Spurs. They'd give the Miami Heat a better Finals than the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In the second and last regular-season rematch of last June's Finals, the Heat on Thursday again stymied the Thunder, winning 110-100. Including that series, Miami has won six in a row over Oklahoma City, meaning it's getting hard to call this a budding rivalry.
"We just try to go out and execute and we've been able to do some really good things vs. this team,'' forward LeBron James said of Miami's continued dominance of the Thunder. "They're one of the best teams that we have in this league, so we have to be sharp.
"We have to come in with a great mindset and we've been able to do that in the few games that we've played them over the past few years."
When the Heat lost Game 1 of the Finals 105-94, that really must have gotten their attention. They won the next four games to close out the series, beat Oklahoma City 103-97 at home in a much-anticipated Christmas Day rematch, and then came Thursday's shellacking.
The Heat (36-14) led by as many as 23 points in the third quarter. Yes, the Thunder (39-14) made a late run, getting as close as eight in the final minute, but the outcome really never was in doubt.
Miami has won the past six games in the series by an average of 7.8 points, including the last three by an average of 10.3. There's no reason to believe the Heat wouldn't continue to frustrate the Thunder in a possible Finals rematch even if Miami players are being very cautious about providing potential bulletin-board material.
"We can't get too ahead of ourselves," Heat forward Chris Bosh said. "We've had some recent success. But you never can just relax and just know, 'Like, OK, we've just got to show up to beat these guys.' We have to prepare. We have to be thorough with our preparing and we have to come out and play extremely hard."
You know James is going to come out hard against Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant, his good buddy and top rival for MVP. In addition to the Heat continuing to show their dominance over the Thunder, James on Thursday took another step ahead of Durant toward winning a fourth MVP.
Sure, Durant outscored James 40-39, but that's misleading. James had outscored Durant 23-14 in the first half before the Thunder star piled up plenty of points after the game had been all but decided.
James, who had 12 rebounds and seven assists, saw his NBA-record streak of six consecutive games of 30 points and 60-percent shooting come to an end when he missed a late 3-pointer to finish 14 of 24 for 58.3 percent. But that didn't bother him in the least.
After all, James' teams are now 13-3, including the playoffs, in his career against Durant's teams. Plus, the Heat had just recorded easily their best road win of the season.
Entering Thursday, Miami's top road victory was over Denver, which has the NBA's seventh-best record. Against other teams in the top eight (Miami ranks third), the Heat came in Thursday with a 1-6 road mark.
But the Heat, who have won seven in a row, are now playing at a peak level heading into the All-Star break and serving notice they're at least the NBA's second-best team. San Antonio has an NBA-best 42-12 mark.
So bring on the Spurs, who haven't made the Finals since 2007 and play host to Miami on March 31. That figures to be a much better potential Finals preview than Thursday.
Who's Hot: How about hottest of all time? If it wasn't for a long missed late 3-pointer, which knocked him down to 58.3 percent (14 of 24), James would have extended his NBA record to seven of consecutive games scoring 30 points while also shooting 60 percent. Still, James has averaged 32.0 points and shot 69 percent in his past seven. Perhaps the Elias Sports Bureau will research the longest streak in history for a player scoring 30 points and shooting 58 percent.
Who's Not: Guard Ray Allen bounced back a little bit by shooting 5 of 11, including 3 of 6 on 3-pointers, Tuesday against Portland. But it was mostly back to clanging on Thursday, when he went 3 of 9, including 1 of 5 from beyond the arc at Oklahoma City. Over his past seven games, Allen has shot 12 of 48 (25 percent), including 5 of 23 (21.7 percent) on 3-pointers. Perhaps his field-goal percentage was spared from going down even more when he sat out the Feb. 8 game against the Los Angeles Clippers.
1. Michael Jordan has a point when he takes Kobe Bryant over James as the better player because he has a 5-1 lead in championship rings. Keep in mind, though, the lead is just 2-1 since James entered the NBA in 2003 and that he can tie Bryant this season in that regard. Bryant isn't going to win another title anytime soon. James also has a 3-1 career lead in MVP trophies. Sure, one can take Bryant, 34, now over James, 28. But it wouldn't be surprising if Jordan offers a change in his assessment around the end of this decade.
2. Miami is the basketball capital of the world this winter. Not only does the city have the defending NBA champs in the Heat, it has the third-ranked University of Miami Hurricanes. James and guard Dwyane Wade recently joined Heat guard James Jones, who played for the Hurricanes, for a game against North Carolina. "Can we turn this into a basketball town?" Heat coach Erik Spoelstra asked. "I've gotten to know (University of Miami coach Jim) Larranaga going to (University of Florida coach) Billy Donovan's coaching clinic. We flew back on the same flight a couple of years ago. Since then, I've spent a handful of times on (Miami's) campus meeting with him and his staff just talking hoops. So I'm a big fan of his and what they've been able to do is very cool."
3. Players on the Heat have plenty of great All-Star memories. As for the not-so-great, one place to turn is center Chris Andersen. While then with New Orleans, the Birdman needed nine attempts and three minutes before he made his first successful slam in the dunk contest in Denver in 2005. Andersen had been trying to throw the ball from halfcourt and catch it after a bounce for a dunk. "I remember it like it was yesterday," said Heat forward Rashard Lewis, who was then with Seattle and competing in his first of two career All-Star Games. Well, Lewis' memory actually isn't that great. But the legend has grown in the past eight years. "He missed like 30 dunks and kept going over and over," Lewis said of Andersen. "That's why they put the time limit on it. It was the Birdman Rule. You knew he was going to try to do something spectacular, but after a while it was like, 'Man, just make a dunk already. We're getting tired. Let's move on.'"
"He told me to shoot. He said, 'Shoot. You can't shoot.' And I said, 'OK,' and I shot it and I made it. Then I made another one. Then I made another one. Then I made another one, and he stopped talking to me."
— James, on a fan riding him Thursday at Oklahoma City.
"All good things must come to an end."
— James, who shot 58.3 percent Thursday to see the end of an NBA-record streak in which he had scored 30 points while shooting 60 percent or better in six straight games.
"It's crazy. When he shoots 50 percent, it's going to be kind of a dull moment."
— Wade, on James' streak.
"Three days in bed. Everybody be careful about that, it's pretty nasty, man. It put me on my butt pretty good. So I wasn't able to play with my kids or do anything for that matter. Just watch TV and stay in bed."
— Bosh, who missed two games with the flu before returning to average 21.3 points in the past three games.
1 — Player with a longer streak of consecutive All-Star Game selections than James and Wade, who each have nine. That would be Bryant at 15. Bosh has the NBA's fourth-longest streak at eight. James and Wade were named for the first time in 2005 and Bosh first showed up in 2006 when the game was in Houston. It's back in Houston on Sunday.
642 — Games played by Wade for the Heat all-time record. That's one game ahead of forward Udonis Haslem, who had been tied with Wade until missing Thursday's game at Oklahoma City due to a leg injury.
52 — Longest streak of consecutive regular-season games played on the Heat, held by guard Mario Chalmers. He and James are the only two Miami players to have appeared in all 50 this season.
It's time for All-Star Weekend. But Sunday's game will look a lot like a Heat game. They have two East starters in James and Wade and could have a third in Bosh, who expects to be named as a starter in place of the injured Rajon Rondo of Boston. The All-Star coach who gets to pick Rondo's replacement is Spoelstra, who will have his staff with him in Houston. After the All-Star break, the Heat hit the road for three games, starting with Atlanta on Wednesday and Chicago on Feb. 21.
You better believe it. The Heat won easily Thursday at Oklahoma City. They've won seven consecutive games and are playing by far their best ball of the season.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson