- Tip-off: 6:30 p.m. CT
- Television:Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
MIAMI – “That was a great win,” Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan said on Saturday night after his team beat the league-leading Houston Rockets on the road, soaking in the victory for the entirety of one short sentence. “But we need to move beyond this and get ready to play in Miami. Can we now come back and have a sustained level of concentration, attention to detail and consistency?”
That’s the task for the Thunder as it takes on the Miami Heat in the final road game of the 2017-18 regular season, one of two final chances this year for Donovan’s club to clinch a playoff berth. Needing just one win to secure one of the final eight spots, but two wins to solidify a stronger position, the Thunder is all in on trying to rack up as many wins as possible in the final week of the season.
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That’ll be no easy job against Miami, an Eastern Conference squad fighting for its own playoff seeding. The Heat are tough and physical, and have a number of players that put the ball on the floor, from a variety of positions. This time around, unlike in the first matchup in March, the Heat will have center Hassan Whiteside.
While the emerging young center flourishes on the glass and above the rim, he’s complemented with James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk as playmakers and shooters at the power forward and reserve center spots. On the wing is a sharpshooter in Wayne Ellington and a physical, versatile slasher in Justise Winslow. As a result, the Thunder knows the precise, efficient Heat offense will create flurries of scoring, and will need to parry those as promptly as possible.
“There’s going to be runs in games, for and against you,” Donovan noted. “You have to have the resiliency and a mental stamina and toughness just to work through that because it’s not going to always be smooth.”
Miami is a completely different team in comparison to the Rockets, but the Thunder would be wise to take a page out of its own playbook against the Rockets from Saturday’s second half: avoid fouling. By being disciplined in coverages and with on-ball technique, the Thunder put the Rockets at the free throw line just seven times in the third and fourth quarters combined. Doing that again in Miami would be a huge step in backing up that performance over the weekend.
“We were well-positioned in a lot of ways and we had hands off players,” Donovan noted.
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The ringleader for all of Miami’s offense, and the player most prone to draw Thunder fouls, is point guard Goran Dragic. The Slovenian All Star is a veteran, intelligent and crafty ballhandler who many times probes the lane in transition or the secondary break to force defenders into difficult circumstances. Rather than simply looking for a driving layup, Dragic lingers in the key until a help defender commits too far one way or another, opening up a passing lane to an open teammate.
“You gotta have great communication late,” Donovan explained. “(Dragic) does a great job of getting behind the backboard and if you don’t communicate and two guys run to him, somebody’s open or you leave him and go back to the same guy, it causes problems.”
“You have to build back out with him and take away cutters and guys slashing to the basket,” Donovan continued. “He’s unique in terms of when he does drive if he doesn’t like what he has at the rim for himself or somebody else he kind of keeps that dribble alive and tries to manipulate the floor.”
- A fellow European, albeit for the Thunder, could play a huge role in limiting Dragic and his Heat compatriots in the game by playing with the same defensive rigor as on Saturday. Guard Alex Abrines and the Thunder reserves didn’t have a high percentage shooting night, but proved against Houston that their impact in other areas of the game is just as valuable. Abrines picked up a pair of steals and was active on the offensive glass, but more importantly he showed the coaching staff that he could hang in there against high caliber scorers for long stretches, including the waning minutes of the Thunder win.
- “I try to always focus on defense. I’m practicing every day, trying to get better on the defensive end and put it on the floor,” Abrines said.
- This game against the Heat is one of those classic gut-check contests that a veteran squad the Thunder will relish. With a plethora of veterans – Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams, Corey Brewer, Patrick Patterson and Raymond Felton in the rotation, the Thunder has a wealth of knowledge and experience to guide them possession by possession. Felton explained that playing with intensity and with a nothing-to-lose mentality all game long, with the right balance of calmness and relentlessness will be important. The Thunder’s only job is to win, and their ample years in the league as a group will help the cause.
- “This is where the experience and just knowing how to win and having the guts and knowing how to play smart basketball when it comes down the stretch, that’s when all that stuff kicks in,” Felton said.