1. Miami's Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Plenty of it.
James had several chances to talk about how the Miami Heat's Christmas Day matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder rekindled emotions from six months ago when the Heat beat the Thunder on the very same floor to clinch the NBA Finals.
But James refused to go there.
He was asked repeatedly after leading the Heat to a 103-97 victory Tuesday whether, after five straight wins, Miami is building any sort of psychological edge over Durant and Russell Westbrook that the Thunder might not overcome anytime soon in this magnificent rivalry that's brewing.
Yet James wanted no part of the discussion.
"I understood that this is the first time that we've played them since that Game 5 victory [in the Finals]," James said. "But none of those memories came back. It had a great feel. I'm not going to say it was just a regular-season game. It had a great feel, great flow. But nothing compares to June."
As the cliché goes, actions speak louder than words. Repeated outcomes tend to speak even louder. Sure, six months have passed since James won his first championship by overwhelming Durant and the Thunder. But at least one thing hasn't changed: Oklahoma City still doesn't quite stack up well against the Heat.
And until the Thunder figure out that they can't beat Miami at its own game -- that the old 3-on-3 Hoop It Up, small-ball only plays in the Heat's favor -- the ultimate outcome between these teams won't change when titles are at stake.
James and the Heat will be smart and humble about that fact. But they know they're still the team to beat, that Oklahoma City continues to be first among them to blink. Miami is still the team dictating the pace, the level of aggression and all of the meaningful in-game matchups.
These Heat-Thunder showdowns are still being controlled on Miami's terms, much like those James-Durant offseason workouts are mostly carried out on James' hometown turf.
On Tuesday, the Heat withstood a game-high 33 points from Durant, a double-double from Westbrook, being outrebounded and a free-throw discrepancy of 19 attempts and still were able to send the Thunder home frustrated.
James nearly finished with a triple-double, collecting 29 points, 9 assists and 8 rebounds in 42 minutes. The Heat also got another well-rounded, explosive game from Dwyane Wade, a 10-point second half from Chris Bosh and a season-high 20 points from Mario Chalmers. It was reminiscent of those games back in June, when Miami got what it needed from the Big Three and an unexpected boost from role players to win four straight after losing Game 1.
The Heat know the Thunder can't beat them straight up right now with Durant, Westbrook and Kevin Martin, who replaced James Harden, exclusively doing the damage while Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are bystanders. The Thunder came in having won 12 of their last 13 and carrying the league's best record. They left AmericanAirlines Arena on Tuesday dejected, frustrated and still searching for answers against their main nemesis.
"We always say later, later," Bosh said of the tendency to downplay regular-season games as opportunities to make statements. "But now means something. Every game in the season means something. We didn't want to lose this game. It's a big game, of course. Everybody's watching. But most importantly, they're using this game as a measuring stick for themselves because of what happened. We've been in that situation, and it's a very tough situation to be in."
Ultimately, Bosh's point was that the Heat want to repeat as champions as badly as the Thunder want to break through and capture their first title. Barring major injuries, Miami is still heavily favored to come out of the East again.
And unless something changes in the Thunder's approach or the performance of their personnel beyond Durant and Westbrook, they will continue to look up to the Heat.
"I think we did a great job of fighting," Durant said of trying to close the slight gap between the teams. "We were still about two punches from them. It's always intense when we play. That's how the game goes when you want to win so badly. We just have to move on and keep getting better."
Meanwhile, the Heat move on with the understanding that they still have the combination to succeed against an improved Thunder team that, as Durant said, is two punches away from knocking down that proverbial wall. Oklahoma City is a headache for 28 of the league's other 29 teams with few capable of matching Durant's length and Westbrook's athleticism on the perimeter.
But stylistically, they're tailor-made for the Heat.
"They have, for different reasons, been trying different things," Wade said. "They have the ability to put different guys on our different guys. But they're matching up to us, and we're continuing to do the same thing that we do versus most teams, which is our comfort [zone]."
Eventually, odds are the Thunder will figure this out and ultimately overcome the Heat.
Time certainly seems to be on their side.
Durant and Westbrook both turned 24 within the past few months -- plenty of success is in their future. Heck, they're doing quite well in the present.
But James, Wade and Bosh are in their collective prime.
"They play with a game that belies their number of years in this league," Spoelstra said of the Thunder's rapidly rising superstars. "That is a hungry group. That is a motivated group. That is a talented group. That young core has gotten better each year. They have similar DNA to the guys we have in our locker room."
Spoelstra suggested the intensity of Tuesday's game felt like it was being played in June instead of December.
That's a difference of six months.
Yet it seemed time stood still for the Heat.
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
MVP: LeBron James. He had 29 points, 8 rebounds and 9 assists, and at times it felt like he had the game in the palm of his hand. His beautiful pass to Chris Bosh in the final minute helped put the finishing touches on the Heat victory.
That was ... familiar: Parts of the first half looked very much like a continuation of the NBA Finals, with LeBron posting up Thabo Sefalosha, Mike Miller draining 3s and Kevin Durant in early foul trouble.
X factor: Mario Chalmers. The Heat point guard is often overshadowed by his teammates, but he nailed four 3-pointers and poured in 20 points in this one.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Kobe Bryant. After passing Oscar Robertson as the all time leading scorer on Christmas Day, Bryant proceeded to notch his ninth straight game with over 30 points on an uber-efficient 14-of-24 outing from the floor while banging home a series of fadeaway jumpers and contortionist-worthy drives to the rim.
X factor: Metta World Peace. He was in Carmelo Anthony's grill to such a degree, it's likely Melo could identify what brand of mouthwash Metta favors. Anthony still tallied 34 points, but World Peace made him work like a fiend for each and every one while adding 20 points on 6-of-11 shooting and seven rebounds.
LVP: Raymond Felton. The Lakers decided that gearing their defense toward encouraging Felton to launch as many off-balance shots and/or floaters as he desired was the means to discombobulating what had been a precise Knicks attack. They were right. Felton finished a paltry 5-of-19 and, to add injury to insult, suffered a dislocated pinky finger.
Recap | Box score
Well that was ... Showtime: Is it blasphemy if it comes from the architect himself? The great Magic Johnson pegged the Clippers as the new Showtime, and with the aerial display and point guard wizardry displayed tonight, it's easy to draw the parallels.
MVP: Matt Barnes. The first quarter was a feeling out period, but Barnes sparked the Clippers' 42-point second quarter explosion with his usual heady off-ball play. Barnes is a barometer: the Clippers are now 19-1 when he scores in double-digits.
X factor: Denver is deep, but the Clippers trot out a second unit that could realistically secede and form its own team. A Tribe Called Bench was at it again, outscoring the Nuggets 64-47 on the evening.
Recap | Box score
MVP: The Nets led after a first quarter in which Kevin Garnett played just four minutes. But from the second quarter on, Garnett and the Celtics' defense shut down the Nets' scorers and set up the blowout.
X factor: Boston's bench. Jared Sullinger (16 points) and Jeff Green (15 points) made huge contributions for the Celtics off the bench. Sullinger added seven boards.
That was ... ugly: In what is becoming a tradition between these two teams, Garnett and Gerald Wallace got into a skirmish in the second half. It was sadly the most exciting part of an ugly game.
3. Tuesday's Best
LeBron James, Heat: In Tuesday's Finals rematch, LeBron was his usual MVP self in Miami, posting 29 points, 9 assists and 8 rebounds in the Heat's win over the Thunder. He had 19 points at the half, and delivered a critical dish to Chris Bosh in the closing seconds, from which OKC could not recover.
4. Tuesday's Worst
Chicago Bulls: This one got ugly ... fast. Maybe it was a pregame feast, maybe it was the bright red uniforms, but the Bulls sleepwalked their way through their Christmas Day matchup with the Rockets. Even a healthy Derrick Rose might not have been able to save this disaster.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I thought I would never, ever see Showtime again. And I was the architect of Showtime. The Clippers? That's Showtime"
-- Magic Johnson, on the Clippers claiming the NBA's best record at 22-6.
8. Lace 'Em Up
9. Stat Check
Kevin Durant scored 33 points in a losing effort on Tuesday, as the Heat held on to defeat the Thunder. It marked the third straight year in which Durant has scored 30 or more points in a Christmas Day game; he scored 44 against the Nuggets on Christmas Day 2010 and scored 30 against the Magic in last year's Christmas Day season opener. The last NBA player to score 30 o rmore points on Christmas Day in each of three straight years was Oscar Robertson, who did it in each of his first seven Christmas Day games in the NBA, from 1960 to 1966.
10. Dunk Of The Night
MVP: Omer Asik. In his first game against his old team, the Turkey native had 20 points, 18 boards and 3 blocks, and the Rockets were plus-41 when he was on the floor. He played a great overall game, forcing Joakim Noah into several turnovers and slamming down some thunderous dunks on the other end.
LVP: Kirk Hinrich. He played awful defensively against Jeremy Lin and James Harden, and shot 2-of-8 from the floor. But hey, at least he didn't turn the ball over!
Defining moment: The game was already in garbage time in the third quarter, but Nate Robinson was able to come in and score 27 in the second half to make it close for a bit. Rockets coach Kevin McHale then re-inserted his starters, who easily pulled the game back out of reach, leaving the Bulls with nothing but the feelings of Tantalus.