Special jerseys, special shoes and, best of all, one big present of a game between the two best teams in the NBA — it doesn’t get any better than Heat vs. Thunder on Christmas Day.
This time last year, the NBA unwrapped its lockout-shortened season with a marquee clash between the Heat and the Mavericks on Christmas Day. What that game lacked — the Mavericks were a shell of the team that won the 2011 title — Tuesday’s game at AmericanAirlines Arena makes up for 10 times over.
The Heat hoisted on high the Larry O’Brien Trophy inside the arena last season with a blowout victory against the Thunder in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Don’t expect a repeat of that postseason dominance. The Thunder (21-5), winners of 12 of its past 13 games, is arguably better this season even without super-sub James Harden. And Oklahoma City is hungry.
“I think the game is going to have another level of emotion,” Heat power forward Udonis Haslem said, “because obviously you have a rematch of the NBA Finals, so I think the intensity level and the level of play is going to go up naturally with that alone.
“We got to come in with the same defensive mind-set to set the tone, yes, but with the understanding that we are playing the No. 1 scoring team in the league, so it might take a little more.”
Oklahoma City is actually ranked second in the league in scoring (105.1 points per game) after dropping its first game since the third week of November on Thursday to the Timberwolves.
The Thunder has had five days to prepare for its Finals rematch with the Heat. Oklahoma City is ranked second in the NBA in field-goal percentage (.481), three-point field-goal percentage (.402) and point differential (8.8).
The Heat (18-6), of course, has led the league in field-goal percentage (.498) and three-point field-goal percentage (.411) for most of the season. But while the Heat has soared through the beginning of the season as an offensive force, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that the team got its act together defensively.
The Heat is 5-2 since Haslem moved into the starting lineup at power forward. In those games, opponents combined to score an average of less than 93 points per game.
Other factors have contributed to the Heat’s current run of defensive excellence — Joel Anthony and Norris Cole receiving more minutes; Dwyane Wade reestablishing himself as a top-notch defender; and LeBron James playing defense so well that he never even fouls people anymore.
But Haslem’s new role is the most tangible difference between the team that began the season with defensive indifference and the team currently playing some of the best defense in the league.
And then there’s this: Haslem is the only difference in the Heat starting lineup that defeated the Thunder in the Finals and the Heat team that is hoping to win its fourth consecutive Christmas Day game on Tuesday.
“I’m just going to try to bring a defensive tone for the jump and give the team some energy at the beginning of the game,” Haslem said. “We’ve got to compete. They’ve got great individual players. They play great team ball. They’re fast. They’re athletic. They’re young.”
It has been written about ad nauseam for the past two seasons, but it’s worth rehashing today: James and Thunder forward Kevin Durant train with each other in the offseason with the intention of facing each other in the NBA Finals. The two stars also spent this summer winning a gold medal for Team USA at the Summer Olympics.
Durant is third in the league in scoring (27.9 points per game) and James is fifth (25.4). Of course, for James, the key to defeating the Thunder is more about defense than outscoring his All-Star counterpart.
“We have to defend,” James said. “They’re one of the best scoring teams.”
“He might have been a little bit weaker [Monday], but he was able to go through the whole practice,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He was able to work on his rhythm. That was my biggest thought [Monday].”