- Tip-off: 7:00 p.m. CT
- Television: Fox Sports Oklahoma
- Radio: WWLS the Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network
Back in September, before the season even began, both Thunder General Manager Sam Presti and Head Coach Billy Donovan were on the same page – the key to the Thunder’s long-term success in the 2018-19 season was something it was going to have to do not just every game, but every possession.
The operative word for the Thunder was pace in that opening month, and during the season it has mostly followed through on maintaining an up-tempo style of play. This year the Thunder ranks third in the NBA in pace with 105.76 possessions per 48 minutes. In the second half in Indiana on Thursday and on Saturday against Golden State, however, Donovan’s club didn’t play to its identity as well, and got bogged down in more of a half-court style competition. As a result, both games ended in losses.
On Monday, the Thunder will face another foe who would love to get the Thunder to slow it down. The incoming Miami Heat rank 23rd in pace this season.
“We’ve gotta get back to that,” Donovan said of the pace. “On made baskets, we need to push it a little bit better.”
“Moving the ball, don’t think about who is scoring,” added point guard Dennis Schröder. “Our ability to get out and run is great. We just have to keep doing that and get stops on the defensive end. Then on offense just play freely, everybody have confidence.”
The task of keeping the action moving doesn’t come down to just dribbling the ball fast and trying to fast break. It means inbounding the ball as quickly as possible, all five players getting to their spots on the floor early and pushing the ball across halfcourt to get into an offensive set. Against the Heat, that job will be even tougher as the Thunder must play without the services of Russell Westbrook, widely known as one of the fastest players in the league. On Saturday Westbrook picked up his 16th technical foul on the season, causing an automatic suspension.
“Everybody is going to be ready. Everybody is working extremely hard waiting for his opportunity,” said Schröder. “Tomorrow is another opportunity, if he’s not playing, for the bench to step up.”
Westbrook’s absence is good news for the Heat, who already come into the game with the NBA’s very best road defense, holding opponents to just 105.0 points on 44.5 percent shooting, along with 14.5 turnovers. In fact, the Heat are an anomaly in that their record has been better on the road so far this season (16-16) than it has been at home (17-20). In a home win on St. Patrick’s Day, however, the Heat got significant contributions from guards Gordan Dragic and Dwyane Wade off the bench to complement an incredible defensive effort that held the Charlotte Hornets to just 75 points.
“It’s a team that has great versatility. It plays a lot of interchangeable parts. A hard-nosed, aggressive, physical team. They’re really, really good defensively,” Donovan described. “We’ll have to guard a lot of guys off the dribble. They have a lot of guys who can put the ball down on the floor and make plays.”
In order to best the Miami defense, the Thunder is going to have to be willing to play deep into the shot clock, use the extra pass and find ways to penetrate into the teeth of the defense. With Paul George, Terrance Ferguson, and Jerami Grant settled on the wings, Schröder and reserve point guard Raymond Felton are going to have to attack the lane, pass it back out and then clear the middle for repeated drive-and-kick attacks. Down low, the Thunder’s big men will need to contribute as well by finishing around the basket and most importantly, snagging defensive rebounds to conclude possessions.
“We just want to play as a team,” Schröder said. “It’s really important to finish these 12 games out the right way. We gotta approach every game like a playoff game. We gotta come out there, give everything we have and don’t let the opponents beat us.”
- The Thunder may be shorthanded tonight without Westbrook, but unlike at the beginning of the season when the point guard missed the first two games of the year and then missed six games in November with a sprained ankle, there’s much more experience within the group. Youngsters like Ferguson, Abdel Nader, Hamidou Diallo and Deonte Burton are all more seasoned, and along with Felton at point guard, are ready to play with confidence.
- “We all gotta be ready. I think this is a good opportunity for guys to come in and give us good minutes and big contributions to the team with Russ being out,” said George.
- In Sunday’s win for Miami over the Hornets the heat shot under 40 percent from the field and scored just 93 points, yet somehow managed to win by 18 due to a massive advantage on the glass and by slowing the tempo of the game down to a near halt. For the Thunder to be successful tonight, it will have to play with a speed burst that gets Miami out of its comfort zone.
- “Just be us. We’ve been playing fast. We’ve been a fast team, we just gotta keep that tempo and understand that they played last night,” said George. “We’ve gotta be the aggressive team, play faster, play quicker into the shot clock, run them a little bit more.”
NEWS & NOTES
- Without Westbrook, more responsibility will fall to Schröder, who has proven in the past he can handle a starting role as he did in Atlanta. This season he’s mostly come off the bench for the Thunder but has proven he’s more than just a scorer and playmaker. Over the last few weeks as Schröder has tried to regain rhythm on his shot, he hasn’t missed a beat as a defender. That’s a hallmark of a complete player, and one who doesn’t get down when the ball isn’t going in the basket.
- “I just try to change the game when I get in there, especially when I don’t make my shots. I just try to, defensively, impact the game,” said Schröder. “Every time I step on the court I try to do it and try to help my teammates win a ball game.”
- Monday will likely be Miami guard Dwyane Wade’s final game inside Chesapeake Energy Arena. The 13-time All-Star has had a bit of a farewell tour this season, which is presumed to be his final one as a professional. Throughout his career, Wade has been a 3-time NBA Champion, an NBA scoring leader, and 8-time All-Pro, and a 3-time All-Defensive Team player.
- “The one thing I always admired about the way (Wade) played is that he was a great competitor, a guy that made winning plays, could play both ends of the floor, was a physical presence,” said Donovan. “He had great, great confidence about himself.”