Boxing Out, Defensive Rebounding Critical Against Heat – OU Medicine Game Day Report: OKC at MIA

Broadcast Information

  • Tip-off: 7:00 p.m. CT
  • Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
  • Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network

MIAMI – At this point in the season, the late January malaise can turn into February doldrums as some teams limp towards the All-Star Break. Not the Thunder. With just two weeks and seven games left before every NBA team gets a week off to rest and recuperate, the Thunder is trending the opposite direction.

Winners of six straight games, the 32-18 Thunder shook off a rough patch in mid-January and is hitting its stride as a group as it continues its final extended East Coast road trip of the season. After knocking off the Magic in a come-from-behind victory in Orlando on Tuesday, the Thunder now takes on the 24-25 Miami Heat, who dropped a game at home on Wednesday to the Chicago Bulls.

Regardless of records and current run of play, this game will all be about how the Thunder plays, and whether it brings its defense (currently holding a 103.0 rating, third-best in the NBA) and can score efficiently against the Heat, who rank 8th in that same category. The Thunder’s offense hummed against the Magic, but it must play with physicality, tempo and aggressiveness against Miami.

“We really defended at a high level and shared the ball on offense,” said forward Abdel Nader, referencing the Thunder’s 25 assists and 53.8 percent shooting against Orlando. “Anytime the stat sheet looks like that, we’ve played the right way.”

“We’re just moving the basketball, making the right play, making the extra play,” said Russell Westbrook. “That’s key.”

OU Medicine Game Day Report

The major concern for the Thunder heading into Friday’s clash with the Heat is on the glass, where Miami ranks 3rd in offensive rebounds per 48 minutes, and 4th in offensive rebound rate. This season, the Thunder hasn’t always been able to corral those loose balls, particularly off of three-point attempts.

The Heat is shooting 35.4 percent from three-point range but score 33.2 percent of its points on three-pointers, the fourth-highest in the NBA. With all of those potential long rebounds flying around, the Thunder will have to hone in on trying to grab at least 80 percent of the boards.

“We gotta do a good job rebounding the ball. It’s been a challenge for us,” Donovan noted. “The last 10 games, part of the reason why our defense hasn’t been at the level that it was previously has been because of our rebounding. We’ve been inconsistent there and we’ve gotta try to be more consistent, (especially) with the way (Miami’s) front court and even on the wings can go in there and offensive rebound.”

“That’s an area we’ve been struggling with a little bit, just finishing possessions and getting that defensive rebound so we can push the outlet and start our offense,” Nader added. “That’s something we’ve addressed and something we’re going to handle. Hopefully we can change it the next couple games.”  

Over the last few games, the Thunder has changed up the rotations a bit to keep some combination of at least two of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Steven Adams and Dennis Schröder on the floor at all times, giving the team multiple playmaking options to keep the opposition guessing. The Heat, who may play some zone defense and pressure off of in-bounds plays, will certainly force the Thunder to play with toughness and force.

The opposition, game flow and circumstances will all determine minutes and who gets to be on the floor, but every man must be ready to perform. Heading into the Miami game, Head Coach Billy Donovan has one more player at his disposal to work with – Alex Abrines. The shooting guard made his return to the rotation on Tuesday against Orlando after missing 17 games, and will likely be in the mix once again for playing time, giving the Thunder 13 players who have all seen significant minutes this year.

“The more guys we can keep engaged, the better it is for our team,” said Donovan.

“I’m happy Alex is back. He’s a great asset to us and I think it would be fun playing together,” added Nader. Maybe me and him can get on the court together at the same time and build some chemistry together.”

1-on-1 Nerlens Noel

The return of Abrines gives the Thunder yet another viable wing option to provide depth or his own unique punch to the group. Alongside Nader, there’s also Hamidou Diallo and Tim Luwawu-Cabarrot in position to back up Terrance Ferguson and Paul George on the perimeter. While Donovan likely won’t be able to play 11 or 12 guys in every game, there’s both understanding and acceptance on this Thunder squad that playing time must be earned. When a teammate is down, everyone is there to support and when another rises to perform at a high level, there’s team-wide celebration.

“Any locker room you’re in, if you’re a younger player trying to build a name for yourself, it’s always going to be competitive,” Nader noted before explaining the internal dynamic of the Thunder culture. “It’s a really special group of guys. I don’t think I’ve had a team where everybody is just on the same page, everybody loves each other, there’s no hostility. We just all have one common goal, and that’s to win.”


- On Thursday, the NBA announced that the Western Conference coaches selected Russell Westbrook as an All-Star for the 5th-straight year, and for the 8th-time overall. This season Westbrook is averaging 21.7 points, 10.9 rebounds and 10.8 assists in addition to 2.3 steals per game. He’s on track to average a triple-double for the third-straight season and has racked up 17 triple-doubles this season.

  • “It’s been alright,” Westbrook smirked when asked about his season as a whole.
  • “It’s a blessing man,” said Westbrook about the All-Star selection. “You go out and compete and you embrace this game and you enjoy it. It’s definitely an experience that you don’t take for granted.”

  • “It’s really amazing, for the amount of times that he’s been selected,” added Donovan. “It takes a lot of hard work. I’m happy for him, I’m happy for Paul. The amount of times those guys have been All-Stars is really a great accomplishment.”

- While the Heat have not been a prolific offensive team this season, they are a unique squad heading into tonight’s game. Without Goran Dragic or Derrick Jones, Jr., the Heat are down a pair of point guards and may throw some different looks at the Thunder. On defense, Miami may pressure full court or hunker down into a zone defense. On offense, however, the team will use a variety of players as initiators of offense. While injuries are a factor, the Heat have 8 players who are averaging at least 2 assists per game.

  • “They have a really, really high skill level, a great ballhandling, passing team,” Donovan noted, referencing Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Tyler Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Dion Waiters, James Johnson and Bam Adebayo as potential playmakers, not to mention Dwyane Wade, who is probable for tonight’s game. “They all can put the ball on the floor and create. They all can start the break. They’ve kind of like played the point guard position in a lot of ways by committee because they have so many different guys who can handle and pass.”


-       Both Steven Adams and Terrance Ferguson participated fully at practice on Thursday and shootaround on Friday in Miami. They are trending towards playing against the Heat, but will technically be game-time decisions.

-       Abrines played six minutes on Tuesday and scored 3 points, knocking down one of his two three-point attempts, while also grabbing a rebound. It will obviously be an ongoing process to get Abrines back into the mix and into full game shape, but the coaching staff and the Spanish sharpshooter are both hoping to keep making strides forward.

  • “We just gotta get him back working in,” said Donovan. “It was a good positive first step in Orlando to get him some time. We’ll see how we can build out from that.”
  • “Nobody is going to give me anything for free. I just have to work even harder now,” said Abrines. “I just try to do my best and help the team as possible and control the things I can control and don’t look at it more than day by day… If I respond and I play good, I think I’ll get back to the position I was before everything started.”