MIAMI – First it was a 12-0 deficit. Then 16-1 and finally 23-5. It was clear from the outset, the Thunder was going to have to earn its playoff berth. Despite missing its first 10 shots with 3 turnovers in the first seven minutes on Monday against the Miami Heat, the Thunder never relented, and scratched its way back into contention in the second quarter.
Head Coach Billy Donovan’s team held steady in the third, then erupted in the fourth quarter, outscoring Miami by a margin of 39-12 to seal a 115-93 victory, and the organization’s eighth playoff appearance in the past nine seasons.
During that same time span only the San Antonio Spurs have accomplished the same feat, but this Thunder team has less continuity than those rivals to the south. For newcomers like Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, a rookie like Terrance Ferguson – who texted his mom and girlfriend immediately after the game “first year, first playoff run!” – and the team’s intrepid leader Russell Westbrook, tonight’s postseason-clinching game was meaningful.
“It’s obviously something that we come into the season playing for, that time of the year to get to the ultimate goal. Definitely a great blessing with a bunch of great guys,” Westbrook said.
“It feels good, man, just to be back in the postseason mindset,” Anthony added. “This is part of the reason we wanted to come here to OKC. This is part of the bigger picture that we all wanted to come together and put a run together.”
Despite the ugly start to this one, the Thunder hung in there mentally, emotionally and physically, and Head Coach Billy Donovan put his team in positions to take advantage of two key areas to keep the scoreboard moving – the three-point line and the free throw line. As the Thunder climbed back into this one in the second quarter, it knocked down 5 three-pointers, led by George who hit 3 of his 5 total for the game during the period.
“We just understood this is a long game. We just had to play this one all the way through. Just stick to our principles. Stick to us. We didn’t panic. We didn’t panic at all,” stated George, who finished with a game-high 27 points.
Westbrook’s continual attacks to the paint, and forays from teammates down on the block as well helped the Thunder rack up a 38-14 edge in free throw attempts, which resulted in 31 Thunder makes for 81.6 percent. Westbrook’s energy was electric early as he willed his team back from blurry and into focus in the first half. His relentlessness resulted in an apt stat line, a 23-point, 18-rebound, 13-assist triple-double, his 25th of the season. Westbrook now stands just 16 rebounds away from averaging a triple-double for the second consecutive season.
The game changed completely to start the fourth quarter, however, with the Thunder trailing 81-76. A lineup of Raymond Felton, Terrance Ferguson, Corey Brewer, Jerami Grant and Patrick Patterson quickly gained the lead for the first time all game with a Felton three-pointer, a dramatic Patterson four-point play and a crafty driving layup from Brewer, the lone starter in the mix. From there it was a boulder rolling downhill, with the Thunder finishing the final 6 minutes on a 21-2 run.
“We were playing with a lot of energy,” Ferguson recalled. “We were getting stops. We were running the floor and just playing good team ball.”
The catalyst for the group on both ends, however, was Grant. The rangy, multi-tooled athlete plays center for the Thunder on offense, posing up smaller defenders on switches and creating angles to drive past big men for layups or fouls. On the other end, Grant defends power forwards, using his versatility to switch every pick-and-roll between point guards, shooting guards and small forwards. That allowed him to come over from the weakside to protect the rim for 2 blocks in addition to a drawn charge while guarding on the ball to go with his 17 points on 4-for-6 shooting (9-for-11 on free throws).
“(Grant) is just long and really athletic. He does a really good job of just contorting his body, just moving it in freakish ways to draw that contact and finish through contact,” George reported. “He’s a unique player in that aspect.”
It was a total team effort for the Thunder, and one that was encouraging to back up its win in Houston on Saturday. Truly earning this victory felt fitting for the macro result – the playoff berth that this team has been hunting all season, despite adversity and a highly competitive Western Conference jumble. Now it’s time to head back to Oklahoma City to prepare for Game 82, a date with the Memphis Grizzlies, and a chance to make an imprint on where it lands in the seeding shuffle.
Highlights: Thunder at Heat
By the Numbers
18 – Rebounds for Russell Westbrook in the game, leaving him 16 rebounds shy of averaging a triple-double for the 2nd straight year
31-for-38 – The Thunder’s free throw shooting numbers in the game, good for 81.6 percent
41 – Points for the Thunder’s bench in the game, led by Jerami Grant’s 17 on 4-for-6 shooting
The Last Word
“Defensively we got after it. We communicated. We talked our way through it. We brought a little more physicality to the game in the fourth quarter. Guys got it going. We made shots. The momentum from the defensive end carried over offensively.” - forward Carmelo Anthony