Late was the hour, but the Thunder was making its run. The ball whipped around the perimeter and found Jerami Grant, who attacked on a drive for a massive two-handed slam dunk. Dennis Schröder followed that up with an elbow jumper. Paul George got in on the action by burying a three-pointer after careening around a screen. The 7-2 burst helped the Thunder pull back within 110-104 with 1:52 to go. After another stop, a rare missed three by the Miami Heat’s Goran Dragic caromed off into the arms of Paul George, who was already at the three-point line and ready to attack in transition. It was a 2-on-1, and the Thunder looked destined to make it a 4-point game with just 1:28 left and the wind at its back. Unselfishly, but perhaps with a little too much speed, George fired a pass to Terrance Ferguson and it was too hot for the second year guard to handle. The Thunder’s Achilles heel from the first 46 minutes came roaring back, as the ball spilled out of bounds for the team’s 19th turnover of the game. After that deflating turn of events, Miami scored 4 straight points to extend the lead out of harm’s way, and the end result for Billy Donovan’s shorthanded Thunder squad was a 116-107 loss. Despite not having Russell Westbrook due to a one-game suspension, the Thunder got off to a roaring start inside Chesapeake Energy Arena. Behind some stellar defense and quick-tempo offense, the Thunder held Miami to an 0-for-8 start while shooting 5-for-7 on the other end for a quick 13-0 lead over the first 5 minutes. The Heat, unable to set up its zone defense early, was trying to trap Schröder and George out top but with very limited success, while the Thunder’s length and quickness thwarted Miami on the other side.
That dynamic was short lived, however, and the game completely turned when reserve guards Dwyane Wade, a future Hall of Famer, and Dragic, a former All-Star, checked into the game. Behind 15 quick points from Dragic in his first 6 minutes of action, the Heat rattled off a 21-2 response run behind 10-of-13 shooting to re-take the lead, and for good.
"We let them catch a rhythm at that point," said George. "It’s a long game, though. Teams go on runs, but when we got a team on their heels early, we’ve got to keep our foot there. There’s no slippage that can be allowed."
“(They) hit some tough shots. We forced them to shoot non-paint twos," said Dennis Schroder. "D. Wade and [Goran] Dragic, they did a great job tonight. Credit to them. We have to move forward.”
Despite trailing just by two at the end of the first quarter, the Thunder’s second unit again got jabbed with a 10-0 run to begin the second period, as Wade and Dragic continually made challenged shots and things opened for Miami’s halfcourt drives and cuts which originate from all five positions on the floor.
The ball didn’t bounce our way, but that doesn’t matter on the defensive end," said Ferguson.
A 15-7 Thunder burst in response was fueled by three-pointers from George and Ferguson, along with three George free throws made it just a 58-55 deficit at halftime, but Donovan’s club had attempted 8 fewer field goals due to 9 turnovers. The Miami reserves were outscoring the Thunder’s 39-2 at the halfway mark. Without Nerlens Noel who was a scratch with a thigh contusion along with three first half fouls for Steven Adams, the Thunder lacked some of its on-ball defensive pressure against Miami’s playmakers. To start the second half, Miami again took control with runs of 19-7 in the third quarter and 15-3 in the fourth quarter to push the lead out to 101-82 with 7:28 to go. Slowly but surely the Thunder clawed back into it - diving on the floor for loose balls, making the extra pass and attacking the zone through Grant, who scored a career-high 27, in the high post at the free throw line. The former Syracuse University forward is well-versed in being a defender in the Orangemen's infamous zone defense, and was able to utilize that knowledge tonight.
"The times that we did attack it well, we were in great position," George said of Grant's middle attacks. "We were finding the post, the mid-post area, the elbow area. And then those guys were making plays out of that spot.”
Ultimately though, those Thunder advances seemed to always be countered by an impossibly contested shot, a bad bounce or a turnover, including the big one late that put an end to the comeback hopes and dropped the Thunder to 42-29 on the season.
"The best thing we can do is continue to keep working, and just keep everybody uplifted, and positive. That’s the start," said George. "A lot of things can happen where guys think they’ve got to go off and try to do things. We just continue to just keep staying together, keep being the unit that we’ve been all season long, but we’ll get through it.”