Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James
The matchup everyone wants to see. And it sure didn’t disappoint the first time around. Durant finished with 33 points, bolstered by a season-high 19 trips to the free throw line. Durant is one of LeBron’s toughest matchups because he has to be closely guarded everywhere within 30 feet of the rim. And that includes just beneath the rim, where LeBron sometimes lost him and Durant consequently notched easy put-backs. It’s an exhausting cover for LeBron, who has to save some energy for the other end of the floor. What’s interesting is that Durant drew nine fouls on the Heat defense and only one of them was registered by LeBron. How did Durant do it? He made good use of pick-and-rolls to attack against the lesser mobile bigs on the Heat. LeBron will shadow Durant as he zips around the court, but once Durant beats him off the dribble, the Heat need to do a better job of contesting without colliding. If Durant gets to the line 19 times again, the Heat may not be so lucky to walk away with a win.
The Chris Bosh revival tour
There's something telling about the fact that the Thunder will start Serge Ibaka on Bosh rather than newly acquired big man Kendrick Perkins. Oklahoma City's coaching staff sees Ibaka's agility and ranginess as the antidote to Bosh's versatile skill set. "When I was young, he was one of my favorite players," Ibaka said at Wednesday's shootaround. "I dreamed to play like Chris Bosh." Ibaka listed Bosh's pump-fake as one the bigger challenges he'll have with the assignment. "We know the guy has the pump-fake and we try to stop it, but, 'No.'" For Ibaka, focus is the key. Watch Bosh's eyes, his movement, be mindful of where the other big is on the floor. All of these things have to be taken into account when dealing with Bosh, who has finally emerged as the frontcourt triple-threat the Heat envisioned him to be. Perkins, who has been battling with Bosh since their high school years in Texas, had this advice for his fellow big man: "You have to play [Bosh] physical. He's a talented player, but he's not a physical player, though he tries to be at times." Perkins' skepticism of Bosh's newfound aggressiveness isn't surprising, given the competitive nature of the source, but Bosh will have to use everything in his tool box to keep his recent run of productive outings going.
Stopping Russell Westbrook
The Thunder aren’t just a one-man show. Westbrook made the leap this season into the league’s elite and gave the Heat fits in the first game. He did just about everything on the court, scoring 21 points, dropping 10 dimes and pulling down seven rebounds. He’s a roadrunner in the open court, so the Heat need to sprint back to their spots and have trotting big men disrupt his uptempo dribble. If he secures a rebound, he’s flying down to the other end. Another way to limit Westbrook’s transition game is to not turn over the ball, something the Heat did a terrible job of in the first meeting. In the halfcourt, Westbrook bullied Mario Chalmers, prompting Erik Spoelstra to bench Chalmers midway through the third quarter and stick Dwyane Wade on him. The Heat will likely employ a strategy to encourage the mid-range jumper from Westbrook and keep him away from the paint area. Westbrook also makes it difficult for Spoelstra to find minutes for Mike Bibby. Westbrook would dizzy Bibby up and down the court, so the Heat will have to pick their spots extra carefully.
Wings of desire
Durant has serious length and second-year guard James Harden is a real comer for Oklahoma City. But when the Thunder need a fireman to extinguish an explosive wing, Thabo Sefolosha is the guy. His assignment Wednesday night? Wade. Sefolosha is a cerebral defender who's fully aware that dominating a dynamic slasher who's been as electric as Wade has been in March is wishful thinking. Instead, Sefolosha sees it as an exercise in savvy damage control. "I have to take something away," Sefolosha said at Wednesday's shootaround. "He likes to have the ball in his hands, so I'm going to try to deny him the ball. If I give him something, it'll be a contested jump shot. But I'm also going to need help from my teammates because he uses a lot of screens. It's tough to pressure him because of his ability to dribble the ball and go by people. I have to force him to use the screen and not let him reject the screen and rely on the help." That help will come from Ibaka, Perkins and Nick Collison, each of whom need to be poised and ready to slide over and challenge Wade at the rim.
Protect the ball
In the teams' first meeting Jan. 30 in Oklahoma City, the Heat coughed up 20 possessions, which led to 34 Thunder points. Wade's errant jump passes were out in full force, as he racked up nine turnovers all by himself. The Heat ultimately settled down and executed some beautiful stuff in the half court after a skittish first quarter, but unless they want to gamble on Durant and Westbrook combining for another combined 14-for-42 shooting effort, turning the ball over every fifth possession just isn't going to fly. "We become careless offensively," James said at Tuesday's practice. "We have stretches where we turn the ball over four out of six possessions and we don't get a shot up." Indeed, the Heat are a middling 14th in the league in turnovers. Yes, the rock is often in the hands of high-risk, high-reward creators like James and Wade. But for a team with as many gifted ball handlers as the Heat have, league average isn't good enough. With their slashers and trailing shooters, the Thunder prey on miscues and can win a game on Miami's home floor if the Heat are lazy.