In front of a crowded media contingent at Thunder practice on Tuesday afternoon, Kevin Durant was asked about the importance of Thursday’s showdown with LeBron James and the Heat.
And predictably, the Thunder superstar downplayed the significance.
“Let’s see, it’s not a championship game,” Durant retorted, holding up his fingers to count the reasons this game lacked long-term meaning. “It’s not a deciding game of the playoffs. This game is not going to get us in the playoffs or knock us out.”
“This game doesn’t really decide anything,” he concluded. “It’s a regular season game.”
All factual statements from Durant. No matter how interesting and intriguing, Thursday night is one of 82 tune-ups before the real season starts for both these championship-or-bust franchises.
But beyond entertainment, there could be some enlightenment. Could this mid-February showdown give us any kind of peek into what a June clash would look like?
Let’s examine the potential questions:
Has Serge Ibaka solved his Miami problem?
In the 2012 Finals, Serge Ibaka averaged 7.0 points and 5.2 rebounds in five games against the Heat. He shot 42 percent. He only scored in double-figures once. In the two losses to the Heat last year, Ibaka didn’t play much better. He had a Miami problem. A small ball problem. A Chris Bosh problem. Whatever you want to call it. But at least for one game, it looks like he has solved it. Ibaka had 22 points and eight rebounds in the win in Miami last month, looking like the best big in that game. Can he continue that on Thursday?
How will Perk’s minutes be managed?
Much to the chagrin of his fan base, Kendrick Perkins will start against the Heat on Thursday. But Scott Brooks sounded like a coach ready and willing to make another quick rotation adjustment. If Brooks gets Perkins out early and goes small for the rest of the game, it turns from outlier to trend.
Will Spoelstra counter the Perkins move?
Throughout the past few seasons, when teams find an advantage against Miami, Erik Spoelstra has shown a willingness to readjust. Does he have a wrinkle planned for Thursday? Could he throw Birdman Anderson or even Greg Oden out there for more extended minutes, hoping to find either an inside advantage or hoping Brooks will go back to Perkins? I don’t know. And I don’t know if that would work. But the counter-adjustments between these two teams will be fascinating.
Is Durant becoming a more effective defender on LeBron?
To start the game in Miami, we got plenty of Durant on LeBron. And more than ever, Durant seemed to hold his own. He forced LeBron into a couple tough shots, even stayed strong with him on a post move. The sample size remains small and LeBron, like Durant, is still nearly unguardable one-on-one. But Durant, as an improved and lanky defender, might be the Thunder’s best option. If he avoids foul trouble, we could get a bigger taste of that on Thursday. Should be fun.
How important could Perry Jones be?
Perry Jones was built to play against teams like the Miami Heat. He’s a low-maintenance floor-spacer, who will sit in the corner and patiently wait to fire up a high-percentage open three. And on defense, he’s a 6-foot-11 wing with lateral quickness and probably the Thunder’s best non-Durant skill set to at least slow LeBron. That’s why he got 30 minutes in Miami. And that’s why he’ll probably get another extended run on Thursday. Let’s see what he does with it.
What about the two recovering stars?
Russell Westbrook is a game-time decision, and Dwyane Wade has essentially been one for the past two years. So assuming both these vital cogs play, how will they look? That’ll be the story of the game. From a Thunder perspective, it’s a win-win. If Westbrook plays well, ‘Hey, great, he’s back’. If he doesn’t, it can be attributed to rust. For Wade, it’s some of the same. But in this matchup, now or in June, Miami will need an at least somewhat vintage Wade to beat OKC. Does he have enough gas left?