Miami Heat

Miami Heat rematch with Thunder could be preview of bigger things to come

In the marathon course of an NBA season, the true must-see game comes around only so often.

Thursday brings us one such matchup.

Two of the top teams in the association meet at Chesapeake Energy Center when the Heat visit the Thunder on Thursday night in what could be a preview of the 2014 NBA Finals.

Miami, of course, won its first championship of the “Big 3" era in 2012 against Kevin Durant’s Thunder.

Neither they nor their raucous fans have forgotten.

The Heat, which has won nine of its past 11 games, knows it’s in for battle.

“You have to look at all of them the same; it's an absolute blessing to be in this profession,” coach Erik Spoelstra said after Miami disposed of the Mavericks 117-106 on Tuesday night in Dallas.

“We understand who we're playing on Thursday and they understand who they're playing.”

Oklahoma City, which has the best record in the league, tore through Miami in the last meeting.

The Thunder's 112-95 win at AmericanAirlines Arena on Jan. 29 doesn't diminish the matchup NBA fans around the country have been anticipating for weeks.

The big news around the Thunder lately has been the emergence of Durant as a challenger to LeBron James’ run as league MVP.

With Russell Westbrook out since having knee surgery on Dec. 27, Durant has stepped up his already impressive game by averaging 35 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists in the 26 games Westbrook has been out.

On Thursday, Westbrook will return. The Thunder are 21-4 with Westbrook in the lineup this season.

James has been named the NBA’s most valuable player the past two years and four times in his career.

“It's definitely a challenge,”' James said after scoring a season-high 42 points in a dominating performance in Dallas.

“You have to worry about one superstar, now you're bringing in another one, another All-Star. It’s going to be challenging for our defense. He’s an attacking guy and I know he’s looking forward to coming back. They're going to use that unbelievable crowd that they have to give them even more of a boost.

“We’ll be ready for them, Spo and his coaching staff will give us a great gameplan and we just have to execute it.”

Miami, now 16-4 against Western Conference teams, has talked about taking a business-like mentality to its season-long six-game road trip.

The Heat has won four of the first five on this tour out west, one that started with a win over the Clippers in Los Angeles. Miami's lone loss came in Utah.

Wins against Phoenix, Golden State and Dallas — with a short break for All-Star weekend — have come between.

The Heat, which took Wednesday off, return home for another nationally-televised game Sunday against Chicago.

“What we want to continue to do is not make excuses,” Spoelstra said. “We've been on the road and that’s the first thing we addressed; are we going to make excuses or treat this like a business trip, try and finish it out. We got a big win [Tuesday] and we can enjoy it on the flight because we got a big one coming up.”

• The NBA’s trade deadline is 3 p.m. Thursday with the Heat not expected to make any big moves — although team president Pat Riley certainly could tweak Miami's roster just a touch.

• Greg Oden scored five points over 5:20 in the first half of Tuesday's game, his most productive outing since he scored six points in his Heat debut on Jan. 15 at Washington. Oden, who hadn't played since 2009 because of serious knee issues, has played in five of the past six games. The Heat continue to bring the 7-foot center — who was the top overall pick out of Ohio State in 2007 — along slowly.

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