Sorry, Minnesota Timberwolves and Washington Wizards. I know the Thunder plays you this week, but I couldn’t care less. It’s Heat Week.
Oh, sure, I’ll be watching the T-Wolves game and attending the Wizards game, just like always. I want the Thunder to win both, and it will be embarrassing if they drop either. But ultimately, as I’m sure many Thunder fans would agree, I’m focused on the Miami game at noon Sunday.
All of the “Thunder is the anti-Heat” talk was so abundant and repetitive last summer that I got tired of hearing it before the season even started. But that doesn’t mean there’s not at least a hint of truth to it, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t crave a home win over any team more than I want one over the Heat (with the possible, and I do mean possible, exception of the Lakers). It’s been circled on my calendar since the day the schedule came out. It’s on ABC. The arena will be rocking unlike any other regular season game since the team arrived in Oklahoma City. In short, this may be the most anticipated regular season game in OKC’s brief NBA history.
It is a battle of contender-building methods. There’s no hope of assembling a Heat-like collection of free-agent talent in Oklahoma City. Sorry, but it’s going to be hard to sign anybody other than a middling free agent if another team in a more desirable city is able to dangle similar dollars. I’m not saying any free agent who regards central Oklahoma with disdain would be right in doing so, but it’s reality. The only way OKC is going to be successful someday after the Kevin Durant era ends (hopefully in another 15 years…) is through more luck in the draft and resourceful front office moves. There will never be an easy-bake juggernaut here like the one assembled in Miami. So it’s easy to think 0f this as a one-game test of whether the Oklahoma City strategy is a big-time winning one, especially if you’re viewing it with blue-tinted glasses. And it will be easy to think that of all the other Thunder-Heat games in the coming seasons.
But that can be as dangerous as it is exciting. What if the Heat come in and blow the doors off the Thunder, or even win in a well-played, close game? I’m sure the Thunder players are looking forward to it just as much or even more than the fans. What kind of damage could be done to the psyche of the Oklahoma City basketball community? The cliche about the game just being one out of 82 is sure to come out before and after the game, win or lose. That may be true from a math standpoint, but all games were not created equal.
Everybody wants to know if OKC’s precocious band of brothers can beat Miami’s constellation of inflated egos and basketball superpeople. And that’s asking a lot. True, the Thunder may be deeper 4-12 than the Heat, or at the very least they aren’t easily out-manned once you get past each team’s three best players. But because of its winning ways in the last season and a half and despite the constant reminders from the national media, it’s easy to forget that Oklahoma City is still an extremely young team whose best players are still a few years away from the age at which players traditionally peak. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are in those years right now. And other than Bosh, they’ve progressed deep into the playoffs, while the Thunder has yet to win its first playoff series. The Heat may not have learned to win in the playoffs as a group, but based on record alone (Miami’s 31-13 to Oklahoma City’s 28-16 as of today), they’re already better at collecting wins in the regular season. OKC has yet to approach anything like Miami’s 12-game winning streak earlier this season, albeit without the benefit of a similarly soft stretch in which to accomplish it. The Heat went on to win nine straight after its 12-gamer snapped.
I think overreacting to the Heat game Sunday is likely from local and national fans and media, regardless of the outcome. If the Thunder wins, people will whoop and holler about how the anti-Heat humbled Miami, and if OKC loses, people will trot out the “not quite there yet” stories as if we didn’t know that already. I know there will be overreacting in comment sections here and elsewhere — I continue to think last season’s success has made Thunder basketball the new OU football in Oklahoma, where an increasing number of fans are unable to find much joy in anything other than a dominating win, and gnashing of teeth and lambasting of players and coaches follows most imperfect outcomes.
But James makes for too good of a villain these days. In the Thunder’s first two seasons, I looked forward to Cleveland’s annual trip to Oklahoma City to see the spectacle of King James, and he didn’t disappoint. He sank half-court shots during warm-ups, rained down rim-shaking dunks in transition and whipped passes around the court with a flick of his wrist. The Cavs won both games, but I didn’t mind because I saw what I came to see. Now, however, it’s different. I don’t care about what he can do on the court, I just care about seeing the Heat go down at the hands of our virtuous young basketballers. I don’t like James, I don’t like the Heat, I don’t like what they stand for and I want to see them go down.
So whatever. I’ve laid out plenty of reasons not to overreact and get overly invested in one regular season game, but I’m going to anyway. It’s too easy.
Beat the Heat.