Thunder at Heat Preview
“You have to have a great focus, you can just feel it in the air,” Thunder center Kendrick Perkins said about the team’s mindset heading into its nationally-televised game against the Miami Heat on Wednesday night. While a lot of outside attention has been placed on this regular season tilt, the Thunder knows it is just another one of its “66 tests” that it will try to pass this season, as Head Coach Scott Brooks described it. In a matchup of teams who hold two of the NBA’s best records, the Thunder will treat this one like another other contest and do its best to execute on offense and lock-in on defense.
In the last matchup between these two squads only nine days ago, the Thunder defeated Miami to the tune of 103-87 thanks to 35 combined points by Perkins and Serge Ibaka, along witha defensive effort that forced the Heat into 21 turnovers. A keyto the victory was the Thunder’s ability to dictate on offense, racking up 26 assists and doing a nice job of making the extra pass.
“We did a good job of running into our screens,” Brooks said. “We did a good job of setting up our screens. We did a great job of passing and making quick decisions. Our bigs separated, our opposite big really got into open areas, and our ball movement was good. It was our best of the year. Sometimes, looking back at it, you don’t anticipate that because you’re playing against one of the best defensive teams that you will face, but we played well.”
In tonight’s game, it will be essential for the Thunder to assess what, if any, adjustments the Miami defense has made coming into the game, then work in ways to combat it with its own offensive execution. In the first matchup, forward Kevin Durant racked up eight assists while guards Russell Westbrook and James Harden each had six assists of their own. Against a long, hyper-athletic Heat team that boasts one of the best defenses in the NBA, the Thunder looks to duplicate its unselfish, smart way of attacking the Heat by moving the ball.
“If you keep the ball one-sided they get the opportunity to keep the ball on that side, and that’s what they want,” Westbrook said. “For us, we have to use our speed and athleticism to get the ball to the other side of the court.”
While the way the Thunder sets screens and makes crisp passes on offense will certainly dictate whether it gets high percentage looks at the basket, the focus every night for Brooks’ team is on the defensive end. Preventing easy looks at the rim for opponents is the most critical aspect of this Thunder squad, and going against LeBron James, Chris Bosh and potentially Dwyane Wade means the defense must be on point. In recent weeks Perkins has been complimentary of the perimeter defense of Westbrook, Harden, Durant and Thabo Sefolosha, which Westbrook discussed after shoot-around.
“Going back and forth, Thabo and I communicate a lot off the floor about who we’re defending,” Westbrook said. “We definitely take pride in that. I know I do and I know Thabo does as well, so that’s a big thing for us.”
With great offensive players like James and Wade on the other side, a commitment to solid defensive principles, smart defensive rotations and hustle will all be important tonight. Coach Brooks said that he thinks his players’ natural ability puts them in a position to be successful when using those aforementioned qualities. The combination of length and quickness makes a defense difficult to penetrate, and that recipe is what makes the Thunder’s perimeter defenders successful.
“They’re good defenders, they have the ability to defend and the mindset to want to defend,” Brooks said. “They’re athletic. Thabo is 6’7”, Russell is 6’4”, Kevin is 6’10”. They all have long arms, they all want to defend. When they really lock in and get into a defensive stance and focus and have a great mindset, we’re tough to score on. We have to have that for 85 possessions tonight, because Miami, they come at you and they come at you every possession.”