The highly anticipated game between the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday had the look of a NBA Finals series, as both teams went at it so hard that all the participants should feel a little battered and bruised. But one hard foul not only changed the complexion of the game but it may have triggered a new heated rivalry.
The Thunder, who owns the best record in the Western Conference, has been red hot since the All-Star break while the Heat have been slumping a bit and needed a serious wake-up call. That came with just over five minutes left in the second quarter with Oklahoma City leading 41-34 and poised to seize control of the game in the first half.
Russell Westbrook tried to cross over Dwyane Wade but the Heat guard poked the ball away and flipped it to a streaking LeBron James for a potential breakaway dunk. On his way to the hoop, James got tugged from behind by Westbrook, who was called for a flagrant foul. But the Heat and their fans felt it was an unnecessary play because Westbrook grabbed James by the shoulder and could have seriously injured him. For the rest of the half, Miami fans chanted “Westbrook sucks!” and the game turned into a real physical battle, and the Heat may have benefited from it the most since they’re playing at home.
Westbrook’s foul not only riled up the crowd but it fired up the entire Heat squad, as Miami went on a 16-8 run to finish the second quarter to take a 50-49 lead at halftime. ESPN reporter Lisa Salters spoke to LeBron before he headed to the locker room and the Heat star said he didn’t think Westbrook’s play was dirty and called it “playoff basketball.” When Salters tried to correct him by addressing the fact that it’s still the regular season, LeBron said “Well, I guess ESPN2 got an early Christmas present.”
The flagrant foul summarized the playoff-type intensity both teams exhibit the whole game. It was nasty, and it very chippy. The game also featured a tasty matchup between the two front-runners in the MVP chase: LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
James and Durant were matched up the whole contest, something we rarely see anymore in the NBA because most coaches are afraid their superstars will get into foul trouble when going head-to-head with a fellow All-Star. But give credit to Scott Brooks and Erik Spoelstra for trusting their stars and giving the fans what they wanted to see. James finished with 34 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists, while Durant led the Thunder with 30 points.
The Heat won 98-93, avenging their embarrassing 103-87 loss at Oklahoma City on March 25. Durant won round one, while James came back to win round two. Will there be a round three? If both teams handle their business in the playoffs, we should see the rematch in The Finals.