How OKC beat Jimmy Butler and Miami in a Jimmy Butler-type game

How OKC beat Jimmy Butler and Miami in a Jimmy Butler-type game

Miami doesn’t so much win games as it makes opponents surrender. The Heat is into submission, but the Thunder did not submit.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Mar 9, 2024, 6:44am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Mar 9, 2024, 6:44am CST

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Luguentz Dort dashed in from the corner as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander launched a jumper from out top. What else was Dort going to do? Stand there and spectate?

That’s not Dort’s style. Dort puts on his hard hat and goes to work every Thunder game night. So Dort dashed in, the ball bounced off on the opposite of Dort’s burst toward the basket, and Dort stretched his left arm to tap the ball away from Jimmy Butler’s hands. Thunder teammate Aaron Wiggins grabbed the ball and shoveled it to Isaiah Joe, who hit a long-range jumper that gave OKC a five-point lead.

Soon enough, the Thunder had a 107-100 victory over Miami, and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra kept looking at the box score, his brain failing to acknowledge the message his eyes were sending.

The Thunder outscored Miami 23-5 in second-chance points. The Thunder ranks 29th among the 30 NBA teams in offensive rebounds. But on a Friday night when Miami pulled the distributor cap off the OKC offense, the Thunder found other ways to win.

“It’s nice to have a diversity of wins,” Mark Daigneault said. “It’s nice to have a diversity of opponents and a diversity of games. If you win the same way every single night, then when you end up in a wrestling match like tonight, it’s unfamiliar.”

A wrestling match this was. This was a Jimmy Butler special, named in honor of the Heat street fighter. Miami doesn’t so much win games as it makes opponents surrender. The Heat is into submission.

Get to the end of a Heat game, and opponents are scratched up and worn out. Bloodied and bowed. Glad to get it over with, at the small price of defeat.

The Thunder made just 12 of 38 3-point shots against the Heat. OKC trailed 65-51 with 9½ minutes left in the third quarter. That has not been a common script in this magical Thunder season.

But the Thunder kept scratching and clawing, often on the backboards, and came away a winner.

That clawing showed up on offensive rebounds. The Thunder had just nine for the game but scored 23 points off them. That’s 2.55 points per offensive rebound.

To open the fourth quarter, Santa Clara Willliams rebounded his own miss of a short jumper, then kicked the ball to Aaron Wiggins, who nailed a 3-pointer to give the Thunder an 80-73 lead.

Then came the Dort flyover.

With 3:41 left, Arkansas Williams scored on an aggressive putback of a missed shot off a Joe drive, giving the Thunder a 95-88 lead.

With 54 seconds to go and the Thunder nursing a 104-100 lead, Dort flew in again after Santa Clara missed a short jumper. Dort tipped the ball to Arkansas Williams, leading to a Santa Clara drive that effectively clinched the game.

“We had opportunities to secure the ball, but weren’t able to do it, and you have to give them credit,” Spoelstra said. “They also knocked down shots after that.”

He referenced that 23-5 discrepancy on second-chance points.

“I had to look at it three or four times,” Spoelstra said. “My gut felt like it was 30, off those nine offensive rebounds.”

Gilgeous-Alexander eventually warmed up. He scored 12 of the Thunder’s final 16 points, making his final four shots to finish 13-of-25. But when the OKC offensive was out of sync much of the night, defense and rebounding propelled the Thunder.

SGA said that every 10 games or so, the Thunder takes a deep dive into its offensive rebounding, and that when the game slows late in the season, OKC will need to resort to such revolutionary tactics to stay in games.

“It creates offensive possessions,” Wiggins said of rebounding, “and the more offensive possessions you get, the more you can score. We emphasize trying to get offensive rebounds, sending certain guys to crash and grab those to create opportunities. It leads to open 3s and easy layups.”

This was a building-block Thunder win. For one, it returned the Thunder to first place in the Western Conference, when coupled with a Minnesota defeat at Cleveland. The victory also countered the idea that the Thunder can’t win tough.

Miami doesn’t have a giant bruiser, the kind of player that gives the Thunder so much trouble, but Bam Adebayo roughed up Chet Holmgren (seven points, three rebounds), and still the Thunder won this tough-man contest.

Daigneault said winning like this is good for the squad.

“My preference is we’re put in a range of situations and a range of styles, because that’s how you grow,” Daigneault said. “Especially for a team as young as we are, still accumulating experiences. 

“To be in a game tonight against a slower-paced offense, on a night when we didn’t shoot it particularly well, to figure out a way to solve that puzzle, is good for us.”

Beating Miami is good for anyone. The Heat made the NBA Finals in 2020 and 2023, plus the Eastern Conference Finals in 2022. When Miami gets you to play its game, you’re usually in trouble. The Thunder played Miami’s game and lived to tell about it.

“They’re the competitive standard for the NBA,” Daigneault said.

The Thunder, now 44-19, took a big step Friday night to the same kind of status.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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