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Westbrook Returns, But Heat Still Burns Thunder

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Many unhappy returns.  

It was perhaps the most hyped regular-season game in Thunder history. The two-time defending champion Miami Heat was in town.  The world's two best players were going head-to-head, and of course, Russell Westbrook was back.  

But things didn't go as scripted Thursday night in Oklahoma City.  LeBron James scored 33 points to lead the Heat to a 103-81 victory, putting a big damper on what was otherwise an exciting day for Thunder fans.  

The first points of the game came just 40 seconds in, and courtesy of you know who. Westbrook received a leak-out pass from Serge Ibaka and threw it down in the open floor. He then flexed and let out a scream, seemingly releasing the frustration of having to miss the Thunder's past 27 games.  

The Chesapeake Arena crowd was already in a frenzy, but it was taken to new levels when Ibaka grabbed an offensive board and threw down a monster jam on the next possession.  Oklahoma City was up 4-0 and the building was on fire...

But LeBron James brought the extinguisher.  

The reigning MVP took over, using an array of jumpers and spectacular dunks to score the Heat's first 12 points.  And before you could blink, Miami exploded on a 22-4 run and seized a 22-8 lead.  

It was a sadly familiar start for the Thunder.  In the first meeting back on Jan. 29, OKC held a 2-0 lead before Miami took off on a 22-2 run. More on that later. 

Miami ended up doubling up OKC 34-17 in the first quarter and firmly placed itself in the driver's seat.  James scored 16 in the period while Kevin Durant was held to two points on 1-5 shooting.  The Thunder committed nine first-quarter turnovers.  

But as Thunder fans remember, Oklahoma City bounced back from that rough start in the first meeting and outscored the Heat 108-73 the rest of the way in an easy win.  

Trailing 43-26, OKC finally got a run together.  Reggie Jackson knocked down a 5-footer, Durant got a quick five points and the Thunder dashed out on an 8-0 run to get back within single digits. The Heat re-established a 12-point advantage at 50-38, but Westbrook began to heat up.  

Russ scored the Thunder's final nine points of the half as the Thunder closed on a 9-4 run and trailed just 54-47 at the break.  

Like the Thunder in the first, Miami turned it over nine times in the second.  

Ibaka opened the third with a layup to pull OKC within five, but as if it were a scene from Groundhog Day, the Thunder fell flat and the Heat ignited again.  Miami used a 16-2 run to turn a 54-49 battle into a 70-51 blowout.  Kendrick Perkins left the game at the 10:10 mark with what the team called a left groin strain and did not return.  

Oklahoma City tried getting back into it late in the third as Durant went on a personal 7-0 run to bring the Thunder within 76-65, but as is apparently customary, the Heat turned up to start the fourth.  

Ray Allen opened the fourth with a 3-ball, then Chris Bosh nailed back to back wide-open jumpers (one from 3) to put the Heat back up 18 at 83-65.  The Thunder had fight left in them, immediately responding with a 7-0 sprint to get within 84-72. But this wasn't their night.  

A frustrated Westbrook was issued a technical foul with 5:05 to go and the Thunder trailing 90-76. Fans booed throughout in disagreement with perceived one-sided officiating.  It was a frustrating night for OKC.

Durant finished with 28 points and eight rebounds, while Westbrook scored 16 points in 24 minutes. But James and Miami were just too good.  

Thunder coach Scott Brooks talked about James' dominant performance, which was partially aided by the Thunder's lack of ball control. 

"When you give a guy like James a lot of opportunities early, and easy opportunities, the basket becomes even bigger," Brooks said.  "And he was feeling it offensively, making shots, tough shots.  He's a great player and we gave him a lot of opportunities in transition off our turnovers."

Brooks however was impressed with what he saw from OKC's star point guard, but knows the best is yet to come.

"He had some good moments tonight. One thing we know about Russell is that he's gonna give you everything he has," Brooks explained.  "He didn't make some shots that he normally makes but he got to the free throw line 10 times.  I'm not gonna judge him from his 24 minutes in this game. We're just gonna keep getting him better. And as the season goes along and as he gets more comfortable, and in game shape, we're gonna see a better Russell every night."

Oklahoma City (43-12) still holds the NBA's best record and that's what Wesbrook put into perspective afterward.

"It's just one game," Westbrook declared.  "We still have the best record in the league. They beat us once, we beat them once. It is what it is."

He also expressed his gratitude toward the Thunder fans for welcoming him back. 

"We have the best fans in all of sports. They did a great job of lifting me up and cheering as loud as they could. It was a great feeling."

OKC hosts the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday at noon.

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