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Tuesday, December 25, 2012
Heat have the winning combination

By Israel Gutierrez
ESPN.com

James-Wade
With LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, the Heat have enough firepower to take on all challenges.

J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez are teaming up this season for a look at the NBA from two perspectives, called West Side/East Side. Today's edition looks at the Christmas Day showdown between the Thunder and Heat.


Dwyane Wade watched the Oklahoma City Thunder play this season and sees the same thing the rest of us do.

Russell Westbrook's unique athleticism still makes him shake his head.

"When he comes off the pick-and-roll, when he gets to a certain spot, it's amazing how he goes from here to the rim in, like, point-two seconds," Wade said, snapping his fingers to emphasize the quickness.

And what of Kevin Durant?

"He's growing up," Wade said. "He's taking his game to another level."

That should be frightening, then.

Durant's a changed man -- this year's LeBron James, essentially, determined to improve his game and make up for a previous year's failure.

Westbrook is still freakishly explosive, and his assists and steals and 3-point percentage are at career-highs.

The Thunder replaced James Harden, who had a forgettable NBA Finals, with an efficient scorer in Kevin Martin, who can make the Heat pay if too much attention is given to Durant and Westbrook.

Scary, isn't it?

"I would say they're the best team in the West and a scary young team," Wade said.

There's a "but" in there somewhere, isn't there?

"But I don't look at it and say their one-two punch is better than our one-two punch," Wade said. "I just think it's different. They utilize them different than we do."

There it is.

And it's basically the reason the Thunder, while remarkably impressive through the first couple months of the season, wouldn't win a repeat matchup with the Heat.

For as much as this would appear to be about Durant elevating his game to LeBron's level and eventually carrying his team past his good friend's team, it's not that simple. Because what separates the Heat from the Thunder, as slight a separation as it is, isn't that the Heat's top two is better than the Thunder's.

It's what the Heat's top two does for the rest of their teammates. They create a game that looks so simple but so impossible to stop.

LeBron whipping a pass to the corner is just as frightening a sight for a defense as LeBron charging down the lane unimpeded. Either one can, and probably will, end in a devastating manner for the defense.

Shane Battier could be just as deadly in any given game as Mike Miller was in that Finals clincher. Ray Allen could either be a finisher or a creator, giving a defense even more to consider. Chris Bosh can finish with 20 and 10 and not have a single play run for him.

When the Heat are right, they're impossible to stop. Even Norris Cole is a threat these days, which has a way of demoralizing the competition.

And that's because LeBron is now in perfect balance with this offense.

Yes, Durant has become more efficient, and he's more responsible as a rebounder and facilitator. And yes, Durant is determined to make up for last year's Finals loss the way James was determined to make up for his team's loss to the Mavericks in 2011.

But that doesn't mean it'll work out the same for Durant as it did for LeBron.

LeBron didn't just level off after claiming his first title. He refined his game as well.

And most importantly, he continues to be the game's best composer.

Wade, now that he's shaken off the early-season struggles that came with his recovery from offseason knee surgery, believes he's finding his playmaking ways in this offense more than ever. The 6-foot-3 guard is posting more than in the past, and he says he's creating better than he ever has, making defenses pay by simply letting the play develop. He's forcing the defense to "pull triggers," then making the pass that makes the beautiful music that is Miami's offense happen.

"I've always done it, made plays for others, but I think I've been doing it a little differently than I've done it in the past," Wade said.

It's why the Heat remain in a better place than the Thunder, especially in the context of a seven-game series.

The Thunder can get explosive performances from one or both of their superstars in any given game. And they very well could come into Miami on Christmas Day motivated and do exactly that.

But the Heat don't need that kind of production from their two devastating forces. All they have to do is start Miami's machine in motion. Then, on the other end, they defend as if their lives depended on it.

That formula is still better than what the Thunder can offer.

Durant can end up with this year's MVP award (though for his sake, he probably wouldn't want to give LeBron any more motivation in a potential Finals rematch), Westbrook could replace Wade as the league's most dynamic guard. And the Thunder could be comfortable with the balance Martin and Serge Ibaka's offense offers them.

But to overcome the Heat would require OKC to throw a monkey wrench in the Heat's smooth-running system led by a still-improving LeBron and a healthier-than-last-year Dwyane Wade.

Durant and Westbrook can be otherworldly on any given night, and can easily defeat the Heat on any given day, even Christmas Day.

But the season won't end that way.