NORMAN — Almost every player in the NBA grew up watching epic NBA Christmas Day battles. The Lakers, Celtics, Knicks and ‘76ers helped the league grow by entertaining fans on what has become basketball’s marquee day.
But as old rivalries have faded into the background, a new generation of players and teams are getting their chance to prove themselves on the regular season’s most important day. That includes Oklahoma City, which makes its third straight Dec. 25 appearance when it travels to Miami for a 4:30 p.m. tip against the Heat this afternoon.
“It’s a blessing and an honor to play on Christmas,” Thunder forward Kevin Durant said. “That’s what I think I’m looking at more; having the opportunity to play on Christmas.
“Playing against Miami, one of the best teams in the league, is a good test for us. We’re looking forward to going down there and having fun, first off, and playing our game.”
The Thunder enter the contest with the best record in the league at 21-5. However, they’re coming off a loss to Minnesota on Friday that ended a 12-game winning streak.
Today’s contest will be the first time the Heat and Thunder have met since Game 5 of the finals, when Miami won its first NBA championship of its LeBron era. Arguably, both squads have changed considerably since.
“We’re playing a little different style,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “They’re still one of the best teams in basketball. They have a great home record. We’re going to have to play well to come out with a victory.”
Despite that, Oklahoma City has been on a mission through the first third of the season. The Thunder lead the league in scoring and margin of victory. They have quickly come to terms with playing without James Harden and have seamlessly transitioned to relying on Kevin Martin coming off the bench.
The Heat sit atop the Eastern Conference with a 18-6 record. Even though two of those losses have come against a suprisingly strong New York team, Miami remains the favorite to make it back to the NBA finals and defend the crown it won against the Thunder.
Of the five games being played today, there is no bigger individual matchup than Durant versus LeBron James. The pair of small forwards are having similar statistical seasons. Durant averages 27.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists, while LeBron averages 25.2 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.9 assists.
It’s the hardware that separates the two now. From regular season MVP, to Finals MVP to the NBA title, LeBron has everything Durant wants. And despite the fact they have been offseason workout partners and won Olympic gold together, the three-time scoring champion said he is just as passionate about taking them all from his friend.
“I really respect him and I really compete against him hard,” Durant said. “We’re friends, everybody knows that. Once you get on that court and you’re playing against one of your friends, you play to win no matter what. Sometimes he might get the best of you, I might get the best of him one time. But I really respect him and that’s cool that he thinks of me that way and I’ve just got to keep working hard to continue to get better.”
James is using Durant as inspiration also. While the 28-year-old seems to have the world in his hands, he knows his grip isn’t as tight as it used to be.
“I know there is someone, somewhere, trying to take my spot,” James told Sports Illustrated. “And I know where he is, too. He’s in Oklahoma. He’s my inspiration because I see the direction he’s headed, and it’s the same direction I’m headed.
“I know his mindset, and he knows mine. It’s a collision course. We’re driving one another.”
Follow me @eyeamtruth