Published February 20, 2014
(SportsNetwork.com) - One of the best regular-season matchups, and a possible NBA Finals preview, takes center stage Thursday night when the two-time champion Miami Heat visit the Oklahoma City Thunder.
There are so many subplots in this game, but none bigger than the battle of MVP candidates. Right now, the award is OKC forward Kevin Durant's to lose, but Miami's LeBron James has taken the last two and four of the last five.
James, for one, wasn't interested in head-to-head discussions following the All-Star game this past weekend.
"I focus on the team game. I play team basketball. I've always played that way," James said after his Eastern Conference won on Sunday in New Orleans. "Obviously myself and Kevin are trying to do great things individually, and when we get that matchup, it is fun."
The Thunder won the first matchup of the season, a 112-95 drubbing of the Heat in South Beach on Jan. 29.
Durant netted 33 points and extended his 30-or-more points streak to 12 games, which was the longest in the league since the 2002-03 season. It was OKC's ninth consecutive win.
James finished with 34 points on that January night.
The Thunder own the NBA's best mark and may actually improve as a team. All- Star guard Russell Westbrook went through a full practice on Wednesday and is expected to return very soon, maybe even Thursday night.
"With Russell coming back, it adds a dynamic player on both ends of the floor," head coach Scott Brooks explained. "Russell doesn't get enough credit for this, but the defensive toughness that he demands and also his ability to get to the free throw line, those are the things that we like."
Westbrook had knee surgery in December and has missed 30 games this season. He attended every practice and shootaround while injured and even traveled with the team.
In doing so, Westbrook got to watch Durant and the Thunder win their last three, including two on the road. Before the break, OKC toppled the Portland Trail Blazers by three and the Los Angeles Lakers by four. Those two road victories gave the Thunder 20 on the season.
Oklahoma City opens the post-break portion of its schedule with six straight at home. The LA Clippers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Bobcats and Philadelphia 76ers all visit Chesapeake Energy Arena following the Heat.
Miami has also won three straight and the only thing stopping the Heat from a perfect 5-0 mark on this current road trip was a loss to the Utah Jazz on Feb. 8.
On Tuesday, James erupted for a season-high 42 points on an efficient 16-of-23 shooting display and fueled a late 14-0 run that put a 117-106 win over the Dallas Mavericks on ice. The four-time league MVP added nine rebounds and six assists for good measure as the Heat improved to 4-1 on a road trip.
"If we can continue to play at a high level defensively and continue to share the ball ... we will give ourselves a good chance to win," James said of Thursday's showdown.
Chris Bosh chipped in with 22 points, Chris Andersen contributed 18 off the bench and Dwyane Wade provided 13 points with seven assists.
The Heat swept both of last season's matchups and had a three-game series winning streak halted a few weeks ago. Miami has won six of the last eight in this series as the visitor.