By Anthony Slater – Aslater@opubco.com - @anthonyVslater
Four topics for four writers, dissecting the budding Thunder-Heat (and LeBron-KD) rivalry. Here’s your pregame primer for Thursday’s Valentine’s Day affair (Miami at OKC at 7 p.m. on TNT).
1. LeBron James’ game is ______________.
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer) - Spectacular. He can do it all. And yet his all keeps getting better.
John Rohde (beat writer) - Unmatched. He’s done what no one in the game has ever done before with six straight games of 30-plus points and 60-percent shooting, and he’s done this in the natural flow of the game. The most shots he’s taken during this stretch is 18. His standard is far superior than any other player’s. Other players might want to be LeBron, but only LeBron is LeBron.
Berry Tramel (columnist) - Historic. There never has been a player like this. He’s basically Oscar Robertson, only playing power forward. LeBron is the best defender, passer and scorer on the court in virtually every game. And he’s a heck of a rebounder, too.
Anthony Slater (sports blogger) – Evolving and transcendent. Almost without flaws. At this point, with his post-up game so vastly improved and his smooth jumper falling at an astronomical clip, even the greatest nitpickers would be hard-pressed to find an area of basketball in which he isn’t, at the very least, supremely above average. And each season, seemingly each week, with the the weight of the world off his shoulders, he continues to get better.
2. Kevin Durant’s game is ______________.
Mayberry - Steadily improving. He’s growing before our eyes as a complete and more dominant player.
Rohde - Second-best, but not second-rate. His game consistently has improved every year to the point where he’s become the best player on the planet with the exception of one — LeBron. He sacrifices his own game for the advancement of teammates. The Thunder could have no better leader.
Tramel - Spectacular. KD is getting better and better. Leading the NBA in scoring at 29.0, plus shooting 51.9 percent from the field. And he’s making an array of circus shots.
Slater - Unfair for the rest of the league. LeBron has already seized control of the East for what seems like the foreseeable future. Now you have a 24-year-old sharpshooting two-guard with power forward skills and a 6-foot-10 frame. He’s wiry, hard-working and, oftentimes, unguardable. The worst part? He seems to have that rare competitive fire pushing him to somehow pass King James. And in turn, that’s pushing LeBron to stay on top. Scary for NBA franchises without either on their roster.
3. Better supporting cast: KD/Russ or LeBron/DWade?
Mayberry - Got to go with Miami’s. I said prior to the Christmas game that Westbrook and Ibaka are better sidekicks for Durant than Wade and Bosh are for LeBron. I still believe that. But top to bottom, the Heat has a better supporting cast for Wade and LeBron. Their guys not only have clear cut roles – like their Thunder counterparts – but they also excel in them and do so much more consistently. And, again, their collective experience and higher IQs easily put them over the top.
Rohde - LeBron/DWade. Last year’s Finals proved it. LeBron was superb and DWade fought through a knee injury, but the difference in that series were the role players, particularly Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier, who were all clutch. Meanwhile, the Thunder’s supporting cast was anything but.
Tramel - I think Durant/Westbrook has the better supporting cast. The Heat really doesn’t have a marquee No. 4 player, but the Thunder does, be it Martin or Ibaka, whichever you don’t want to put at No. 3. And the Thunder has elite role players in Thabo and Perkins and Collison. The Heat has some guys like that, but Shane Battier is getting old.
Slater - LeBron/DWade. But it’s close. Both teams are constructed well, sculpting rotation players perfectly around their cornerstones. But the Heat glue guys seem to bring a bit more of a veteran presence to the table, a singular team-wide goal of winning the title regardless of shots, minutes or attention (helps when you have a 6-foot-8 basketball wizard that is more than willing to share). But like I said, it’s splitting hairs. The Thunder have great chemistry, but seem to have a few more minor quibbles and drama than the Heat.
4. Who you got, Heat or Thunder? Thursday’s game and potential Finals rematch?
Mayberry - Thunder on Thursday. Heat in a potential Finals rematch. This is an update from my response when this question was posed prior to the Christmas Day showdown. That’s because since then, the Heat seems to have figured out some of its early-season riddles, while the Thunder’s main flaws (and there are many regardless of whatever the record might indicate) still play right into Miami’s hands.
Rohde - Thunder. With five straight wins over the Thunder, the Heat officially is in OKC’s head. The Thunder is upset at how it played in a lethargic loss at Utah on Tuesday night and should be properly focused. Thursday is huge for OKC, which is 46-10 after a loss the last three seasons and 11-1 this year. That one loss was to Miami on Christmas Day on the heels of a loss at Minnesota. No one wants to go into the All-Star break on its longest losing streak of the season. Lose Thursday and OKC might not want a rematch in the Finals and instead could be hoping New York eliminates Miami, which has been beaten soundly by the Knicks both times they’ve met this season.
Tramel - Thunder on Thursday night, Heat in the NBA Finals. I just don’t see LeBron giving up the crown in June. However, I do like OKC on Thursday night. They generally have an axe to grind after a bad performance like we saw in Salt Lake.
Slater - Agree with you guys. Thunder on Thursday night, Heat in the Finals. You know the players and crowd will be extremely amped on Valentine’s night. And if they jump out early, the Heat vets may start daydreaming of a well-earned All-Star break. But at this point, with what we’ve seen of LeBron lately, it’s hard to imagine him going down in June.