No one on either side will admit it.
But they don't have to. We all know the truth.
Sunday's game inside Chesapeake Energy Arena is as big as it gets.
The Oklahoma City Thunder will host the Miami Heat in the first meeting between the two teams this season and, in terms of significance, this battle of conference heavyweights could hold far greater implications than any other regular-season game.
This could be an NBA Finals preview.
Oklahoma City continues to sit atop the Western Conference standings, as it has all season. Miami, meanwhile, is second in the East but still holds a trump card over first-place Chicago from last year's playoffs.
While a handful of teams could derail the Thunder and Heat, it certainly appears as though both teams are on a collision course to meet again for all the marbles in three months.
With that as the backdrop, Sunday's game is worthy of close scrutiny. The things that occur in this contest could serve as clues for what type of Finals series we'd be in store for. And both teams have plenty to prove against each other.
Ignoring the obvious matchups involving the stars, here are five important questions for Sunday's game, as they could come into play in June.
Does Miami have an answer for James Harden?
The playoffs are all about matchups. And in those matchups, an X-factor routinely makes all the difference. Harden has shown his ability to be that X-factor for the Thunder. The Heat, however, don't have a player outside of its stars who can match Harden's offensive production and might not have a player on the entire roster who can stop Harden. LeBron James and Shane Battier are big, physical forwards who figure to give Harden the most fits. But the more they key in on Harden, the more liberty it will give Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
How will OKC's transition defense stack up against the Heat's fast break?
There isn't a better team in the league at turning mistakes into made field goals. Statistically, Denver ranks first in fast break points. But those numbers are a little skewed considering the Heat handle business in three quarters most nights. Officially, Miami is tied with OKC for sixth in fast break points at 16.1 per game. But trust us, the Heat are more dangerous than any other team on the break. How the Thunder defends Miami's transition game will be key, because it's been a bit of a problem area for the Thunder this season. OKC is around the middle of the pack in opponent fast break points, allowing 12.7 per game. The key to the Thunder's success starts with taking care of the ball. The Thunder leads the league in turnovers at 16.5 per game. And if OKC turns it over at a high rate against Miami, it has no chance of stopping the Heat in transition.
Which team executes better down the stretch?
It's been well-documented how both teams have struggled with half-court offense the past two seasons, particularly late in games. This is a chance to see which team plays like the more mature bunch when easy baskets aren't available, especially in crunchtime. In James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, both teams have a pair of the best closers in basketball. At times, though, it's been each team's over-reliance on their stars, in addition to unimaginative offense, which has led to late-game struggles. The team that shows the most discipline in running through sets and doing small things like setting solid screens and running hard off of them could have a leg up. Of course, there's always the chance that whichever team's star has it going the most is the side that's going to win. If that happens, nothing else will matter.
Can the Heat survive the Thunder's size advantage?
Miami doesn't have a dominant big man on either end of the floor. After starting power forward Chris Bosh and center Joel Anthony, the Heat have a huge drop off. Udonis Haslem is a rugged reserve at power forward, and Miami is hoping Ronny Turiaf can still supply some productive minutes. And even though the Thunder lacks an interior scorer, the Heat could get pounded on the glass. Many have called the Thunder's four-man rotation of Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed the best in basketball. They've had their share of problems against athletic big men and big men with versatility. But the Heat don't have much of any of that. It could be a chance for the Thunder to dictate the style and tempo of the game.
Can Miami win in OKC?
The Thunder has been dominant at home save a few recent slip-ups. Therefore, if the Thunder handles the Heat rather easily it could provide another shred of evidence that it's absolutely critical for the Thunder to get home-court advantage through the Finals. Dallas defeated Miami in last year's Finals despite not entering the series with home court advantage. But the Mavs stole it from Miami in Game 2 before winning the series on the Heat's court in Game 6. We're not sure the Thunder is quite there yet, although OKC did win three road games — one in each of its three series — in last year's postseason. The Heat are currently 20-2 at home, and in last year's postseason they came one win shy of tying Chicago's 1996 record of 10 straight home wins. That's why failing to get home court through the playoffs could be costly for the Thunder if it does indeed meet the Heat. In the NBA Finals, the seven-game series format changes to 2-3-2, and it's extremely difficult in an even matchup to win three straight, even at home. In fact, since the Finals series changed to its current format in 1985, only five teams have won all three middle games. And only two of those teams were the host teams.