By Chris Mannix
April 05, 2012

The Miami Heat needed to beat Oklahoma City on Wednesday night, even if they say they didn't. One of 66, just playing to get better, blah, blah, blah. Blowout losses to Indiana, Boston and the Thunder in the last two weeks had kick started the questions about Miami's vulnerability, had forced Erik Spoelstra to make a change in the starting lineup, had caused the hordes of Chris Bosh critics to plug his name into the trade machine and tweet out prospective deals. They needed it, and they got it, edging Oklahoma City 98-93, evening the season series and ending it. For now.

At halftime LeBron James called this a playoff game and, with respect to the calendar, he's right. Oklahoma City came into AmericanAirlines Arena on a mission, clobbering the Heat on jump shots and breakaways, yapping the whole way. The young, upstart Thunder are gone. This Oklahoma City team has a swagger, an expectation to win.

It might have, too, had it not been for a gritty effort by Dwyane Wade (19 points) and a herculean one by James. If there was an MVP debate, forget it. It's over. Kevin Durant is a brilliant scorer and an improving defender, but he's not James. Witness the deflection, steal and dunk in the second quarter that was completed in seconds. Witness the touch pass give-and-go with Wade that led to a layup. James is the most complete player in basketball, arguably the most complete of all-time. In a year where his co-star, Wade, has battled injuries, James has been a consistent, dominant force. James racked up 34 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds on Wednesday, and with a one-point lead with 90 seconds to play forced Durant into a fadeaway jumper that scraped the top of the backboard.

Yes, James is the best player in basketball. His team? That's a bigger question. The win pulled Miami to within two games of Chicago in the Eastern Conference standings, to within one of the Thunder in the quest for home-court advantage in the Finals. The Heat did some good things against Oklahoma City, burying the Thunder in three-pointers (41.7 percent), ball hawking them into 18 turnovers, turning defense into offense the way Spoelstra dreamed they would all season long. But they were also battered on the glass (41-33) and in the paint (40-32) and were a couple of whiffed putbacks away from walking off their home court with a loss.

Miami has the best player, but to reach its goals it needs to play like a better team. Center has been a season-long issue, so much so that on Tuesday Spoelstra yanked the poor-rebounding Joel Anthony out of the starting lineup in favor of Ronny Turiaf, fresh off the waiver wire and admittedly out of shape. The Heat can get away with small, Bosh/Udonis Haslem fronted lineups against a lot of teams but as they get deeper into the playoffs against Orlando or Chicago, if they get to the Finals against Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Memphis or the Lakers, they will need someone to step in and fill the void.

Bosh is a bigger concern. Lately his superior moments have come against bottom feeders (a 30-point, eight-rebound effort against Toronto) and his invisible ones against teams that matter. Bosh scored four points in an ugly loss to Boston on Sunday and chipped in a quiet 12 points (on 4-of-14 shooting) and six rebounds against the Thunder. Bosh has had one double-digit rebounding night since the All-Star break, an unacceptable output from a player Miami needs to play well in the paint.

Make no mistake, the Heat know Oklahoma City will likely be waiting for them if they make it to the Finals. Like Dallas last year, Oklahoma City is a team, one that has risen together from the ashes of a 23-win season three years ago to become the wire-to-wire leaders in the Western Conference. Much of the talk of a Durant-Russell Westbrook rift has dissipated -- the two combined for 58 points against Miami -- and a fit and healthy Kendrick Perkins and an improved James Harden give the Thunder a veritable arsenal of weapons. Miami will always have the best player, regardless of who they face. But to win a series against a team like Oklahoma City, the Heat will need everyone to step up.

You May Like

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)