Sunday's marquee matchup between the Thunder and Heat was billed by many -- though not in Chicago -- as a potential NBA Finals preview. For the Bulls and their fans, instead of taking umbrage, the game should have been dissected as an evaluation of both teams' strengths and weaknesses, particularly Oklahoma City, who play in the Western Conference, won't travel to Chicago and the Bulls face only once this season, next Sunday.
Two-time reigning NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant's ability to score one-on-one against any competition was certainly illuminated, as he took on LeBron James, regarded as one of the league's top individual defenders and not only scored at will, but appeared to sap James' energy on the other end of the floor. Meanwhile, All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook didn't have one of his recent high-scoring games, but was a solid distributor, providing opportunities for defensive-oriented inside players Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, while sixth-man extraordinaire James Harden also picked up the slack.
On the other hand, although the Heat looked tired, it should be noted that they endured multiple lackluster stretches last season before turning it on in the postseason. The addition of big man Ronny Turiaf shouldn't be overlooked because while he doesn't have ideal size to take on the Bulls, among other teams, Joakim Noah's French national team partner is an experienced active force who is capable of contributing on both ends of the floor -- the veteran is certainly an offensive upgrade from starting center Joel Anthony -- and at the very least, is a body willing to commit six fouls.
When it comes to other contenders in the league, it's hard to include anyone other than Chicago and Miami in the East. As a flawed and inconsistent Orlando team looks primed to make another early-round exit, as does Atlanta, which is still without injured center Al Horford, and Boston, which might have reached the end of their run as a serious threat. While the likes of Philadelphia and Indiana appear to be one year and player away from doing real damage after superb starts to the season, the race for the eighth seed between New York and Milwaukee -- both teams are hot, sparked by the Knicks' coaching change and the Bucks' acquisition of Monta Ellis -- is entertaining and in their own way, each team could pose problems for a top seed. The West, however, is another story, as Oklahoma City is the only team that seems capable of truly competing with the Bulls or Heat in a seven-game series, but it's not a foregone conclusion that the young Thunder even makes it to the Finals.
San Antonio is still lurking as the potential second seed and with the additions of veterans Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw -- the fact that Jackson, the volatile veteran swingman, was acquired for the disappointing Richard Jefferson, is a bonus in reuniting him with Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, who he won a title with earlier in his career, and Diaw's connection with both Jackson from their days in Charlotte and point guard Tony Parker from their France ties should ease his transition -- and while Staples Center co-residents the Lakers and Clippers are going through some very public and trying times, each team has the talent to make a run, particularly with the trade-deadline acquisitions in positions of need of Ramon Sessions filling the Lakers' point-guard void and hired gun and L.A. native Nick Young moving into the Clippers' starting shooting-guard spot. Another team to watch could be Memphis, which stayed afloat despite the nearly season-long absence of star Zach Randolph and with added depth and the burly power forward back in the lineup, is for the second consecutive year, a squad that could be a tough out in the playoffs.