In my opinion, this Thursday's game between Miami and Oklahoma City is by far the best TNT matchup of the season and might be the most intense game we see the rest of the regular season unless the April 11 Indiana at Miami game still has relevance in terms of home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference.
Not only do we have the favored NBA Finals matchup here -- it's +275 on Sportsbook.ag, just ahead of Indiana-OKC at +300 -- it's the final time the teams will face off until possibly June. Then you add in the league's best individual rivalry in LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant as the duel for this season's MVP Award. Finally, you get the expected return of Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook. It's truly must-see TV and should do season-best ratings for TNT. I also expect it will be one of the most-wagered games of the year at the various sportsbooks, especially as live betting is available.
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Heat at Thunder Betting Story Lines
I thought the NBA MVP race was over the night of Jan. 29. That was when Oklahoma City went into Miami and won 112-95 despite trailing by 18 points in the first quarter. OKC would outscore the Heat by a whopping 43 points over a 33-minute span. Durant had 33 points that night, his 12th straight (and final in that streak) game with at least 30. He also had seven rebounds and five assists and seemed to clinch MVP. Not that James was bad, finishing with 34 points.
If you have noticed, LeBron has drawn a lot of publicity to himself since that night (his dunking in practice that leaked out, the whole Mount Rushmore thing, etc.), as he is very media savvy. He's also doing it with his play. James has scored at least 36 points in the past three games and had a season-high 42 points -- shooting a stellar 16-for-23 from the field -- in Tuesday's 117-106 win at Dallas. LeBron also had one of the shots of the year, a step-back 3-pointer essentially at the buzzer to win in Golden State last Wednesday when the Heat didn't have Dwyane Wade. Amazingly, it was the first go-ahead 3-pointer in the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime in James' regular-season career. Since the Thunder loss, the Heat have been beaten just once, a trap game in Utah. They have made statements in wins at the Knicks, Clippers, Suns, Warriors and Mavericks, all potential playoff teams.
And then there's Westbrook, who hasn't played since having a third surgery on the repaired meniscus in his right knee Dec. 27. OKC is 21-4 this season with Westbrook and 22-8 without him. So there's really no arguing the Thunder are better with arguably the NBA's best point guard, and that was shown in last season's playoff loss to Memphis without Westbrook. However, Durant has been scorching hot without Westbrook taking his usual big chunk of shots. Durant is averaging 3.8 more attempts without his running mate. Reggie Jackson has played pretty well in Westbrook's place and is averaging 14.4 points, 4.9 assists as a starter. He had nine points and four assists in the first Heat matchup but was minus-7. Jeremy Lamb's production off the bench also has increased with Westbrook out. He had 18 points against Miami and was plus-21.
Oklahoma City can really take control of the Western Conference in the next few weeks. It leads No. 2 San Antonio by 3.5 games entering Wednesday's action. The Heat game starts six straight at home, and the Thunder have just two road games through March 16 (and one of those at the Lakers, which should be a win). With the Spurs sitting Tony Parker for the "foreseeable future," the Thunder could have the top seed wrapped up by St. Patrick's Day.
Heat at Thunder NBA Betting Odds and Key Trends
At BetOnline, Oklahoma City opened as a four-point favorite with a total of 207.5. The Heat are 23-28-1 against the spread (15-12-1 on road) and 31-21 "over/under" (16-12 on the road). The Thunder are 32-23 ATS (15-11 at home) and 28-27 O/U (13-13 at home). Miami is 1-7 ATS in its past eight following a win of at least 10 points. It hasn't covered in its past five Thursday games. The Thunder have covered eight of their past nine against teams with a winning record. The over is 4-1 in Miami's past five against teams with a winning record. The over is 5-1 in OKC's past six against the Eastern Conference. The Heat are 6-1 ATS in the past seven meetings. The over is 4-1 in the past five in the series.
Free NBA Picks: Miami Heat at Oklahoma City Thunder Betting Predictions
LeBron is going to be incredibly motivated in this one because it's clear he's tiring a bit of all the Durant for MVP talk. This is the end of Miami's tough six-game road trip through the Western Conference, and normally that's the worst time to back a team because it often goes through the motions in the final and is eager to fly home. Not this one; it matters to the Heat. The Thunder already proved their point on Jan. 29, and there probably will be some adjusting to Westbrook's return. Take the Heat and the under.
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