Thunder lacks its ‘fastball,’ but digs deep to beat the Heat 128-120

Thunder lacks its ‘fastball,’ but digs deep to beat the Heat 128-120

The Thunder wasn’t perfect against the Heat, but what Mark Daigneault called its “ high baseline of competitive maturity” was enough to win in Miami and salvage a 2-2 road trip.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 10, 2024, 11:24pm CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 10, 2024, 11:24pm CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Whatever it is, the Thunder started a four-game road trip last week without it and never really found it.

Whatever the ineffable effect that had made OKC look like a real playoff contender in December it had lingered only just into January, but had gone missing early on this East Coast jaunt. 

From coach Mark Daigneault’s spot on the bench, the Thunder didn’t find it even in beating the Heat 128-120 on Wednesday in Miami.

But it had something. It had enough. 

“We have not had our fastball physically the last couple games,” Daigneault told reporters after the game. “I didn’t think we had it tonight. But we drummed up the energy. We had the mental toughness to stay in it and drum up the energy, stay disciplined to the game plan, and I thought we got stronger as the game went on.”

The numbers say so. Especially the defensive ones. 

The Thunder — which allowed Miami to shoot 59.1% in the first half — held the Heat to 33.3% in the second and rode a 20-2 run that bridged the third and fourth quarters to a win. 

On a night when it lost some open shooters (Miami was 15 of 36 from 3-point range) and yet again fouled too often (the Heat hit 23 of 28 free throws), the Thunder (25-11) did enough good stuff to rally. 

Much of that came from star players. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had 28 points and eight assists; Chet Holmgren had 23, nine rebounds and three blocked shots; and Jalen Williams flirted with his first career triple-double, finishing with 19 points, nine rebounds and a career-high 12 assists. 

The Heat — missing star Jimmy Butler — led by as many as 10 points in the first half and trailed by as many as 16 in the second. 

And whether or not Miami’s opponent had its best pitch, it left a strong impression. 

“They’re very well-coached,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of the Thunder. “They’re organized, they play to their strengths on both ends of the court. Where they are in the standings and in the league as the third-best team in the league is not an accident.”

Three takeaways from the OKC win:

Fresh starts

The Heat led 35-29 after the first quarter and 69-65 at the half thanks to what Spoelstra called an aggressive offense that got the Thunder on its heels. 

“I just wish it could have kept on going,” Spoelstra said. “I wish we didn’t have halftime.”

The Thunder benefited from the break. 

OKC scored the first 11 points of the third quarter, and though the Heat would rally to regain the lead later in the quarter, Spoelstra said the opening minutes after halftime “just started the dominos going in the wrong direction” for Miami (21-16). 

“We were just getting stops,” Williams said. “Played a little harder defensively. A big emphasis for us was just kind of to not come out flat in that… second half and try and play those first five minutes really hard, and we were able to do that.”

That was a precursor to the game-changing run that followed in the fourth. The Thunder opened the final frame on a 13-0 run, and though the game tightened up late, Miami never led again. 

“I feel like that game flipped in the beginning of the third,” Heat forward Bam Adebayo said. “We came out with no energy and they came out making shots.”

A budding connection 

Williams’ career-best 12 assists came on the heels of a 10-dime game Monday in Washington, marking the first time in his career he’d dished double-digit assists in consecutive games. 

Five of Williams’ assists went to Holmgren, three of them on lobs. 

“They were throwing a lot of different looks and switching and trying to jump screens and stuff like that,” Williams said. “So it’s just a good dialogue within the game. Chet’s a really high-IQ player too, so we kind of are able to talk through some of the stuff he sees, what I’m seeing in the game.”

Daigneault has noted his team’s early season struggles with Williams and Holmgren on the floor and Gilgeous-Alexander off it. 

That was an area where the Thunder needed badly to improve, and it’s coming together of late — in part because Williams has taken off offensively and in part because he’s finding a connection to Holmgren. 

“It’s not just those two guys, but those two guys in particular have worked through it together, have taken ownership of that and have worked together to make that a good tandem and to make sure that they’re effective in their actions,” Daigneault said. “That’s only grown in a short period of time. And as long as they continue to work through it together like that, it’s going to continue to grow.”

Heading home 

With Portland visiting OKC on Thursday, the Thunder doesn’t get much of a break on the heels of the road trip. 

“We play in like six hours,” Williams joked. 

And OKC probably won’t have much time to reflect on the trip after the fact. After home games on Thursday and Saturday, it goes on the road again for games at the Lakers, Clippers, Jazz and Wolves, and there’s another three-game trip — at the Spurs, Pelicans and Pistons — near the end of January. 

Still, there are some lessons to take from a trip that started with a 5 a.m. arrival last Wednesday in Atlanta and a loss later that night. The Thunder still seemed like a tired team last Friday in Brooklyn. 

But with wins this week in Washington, D.C., and Miami, Daigneault saw encouraging signs for the rest of the month. 

“We didn’t have our fastball from an energy standpoint, on this trip,” Daigneault said. “We had a lot of late arrivals, a lot of travel, a lot of built-in excuses, scheduling excuses that every team goes through and we happen to be going through it on this one. And I thought tonight and in Washington we did a good job of drumming up energy in those games and getting back to our attention to detail, getting back to our defensive physicality. And we’re gonna need that.”

 

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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