NORMAN — It’s being billed as a possible NBA Finals matchup. That’s the phrase fans will hear over and over again tonight when the Oklahoma City Thunder travel to South Beach to take on the two-time defending champion Miami Heat (32-12) in a nationally televised game at 6 p.m. on ESPN.
“It’s a regular game,” Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant said. “It’s another game for us. We have to focus on us.”
Even though Durant has gotten nearly everything he’s wanted since the calendar turned 2014, he will not be able to get people to believe this is just another game as Oklahoma City goes for its ninth straight win. Not only is it two of the top teams in the league going at it for the first time this year, it’s arguably the top two players in the game facing off.
The LeBron James versus Durant comparison has been a friendly one the last few years. Despite Durant’s impressive numbers, the nod as the best in the league has always gone to James due to his overall game, physical gifts and most recently, NBA titles.
Yet, the conversation has started to take a turn this season. While James is still putting up elite level numbers and has his Heat as a favorite to come out of the East along with the Indiana Pacers, he’s been overshadowed by Durant and that is almost impossible to do.
But the Oklahoma City (36-10) star has been on such a run that his sheer dominance has even forced national networks to interrupt Super Bowl coverage to talk about Durant.
“There’s nothing more to say,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “He’s a special player. He is going to be an MVP candidate until he decides to retire.”
Durant is averaging a career-high 31.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists. His mindboggling numbers include 11 straight games with at least 30 points. He has also dropped five 40-point games in this month alone. In the month of January he is averaging 36.85 points a contest while also improving on his assists and rebounds.
“Don’t get it twisted thinking he hasn’t been a great all-around player,” James told the Sun Sentinel. “Playing more games, you get more and more comfortable and you start to expand your game. When you have talent and you work at that talent, things become second nature. KD rebounding and making plays for his teammates is something he’s always been able to do.”
But Durant isn’t just putting up points for the sake of putting up points. His team has needed him to take over in the fourth quarter. That included scoring 13 points and hitting a game-winning shot Monday against Atlanta.
“Superstars are the guys who take over at the end of games, and there are a few of them,” Atlanta’s Kyle Korver said. “Kevin Durant is probably doing it better than anyone else right now. We tried to double him, and he went the other way and made a tough shot.”
Durant’s streak of spectacular games have come against some of the best teams in the league. Portland, Golden State and San Antonio have all felt the sting of the Durantula.
However, the Heat are a different breed. Most experts believe they’ve sleepwalked through much of this first half of the season. Only waking up for encounters with the Pacers and the Spurs.
With so many outside observers now proclaiming the Thunder as the team to beat and Durant as heir to the “King’s” throne, there is almost no doubt Oklahoma City will see Miami at its best tonight.
“Of course we respect our opponent, but we don’t come into the game saying we have to stop this guy,” Durant said. “We have to stop the whole team. Just have to focus on us and do what we do.”
Like the great players of the past, James uses these moments to remind people that he’s still on top of the mountain until someone can knock him down. Durant has only three wins in the previous 16 head-to-head matchups.
What we don’t know is if Durant is ready to give the type of shove needed to knock James off.
“There are very few people in the world who have the ability to do what he’s doing,” Thunder veteran Nick Collison said. “He’s playing great, the best I’ve ever seen him play.”
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