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Psyched Thunder target slower, younger Heat

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Injuries plague the Heat's old core, but a new philosophy and a breakout young center have kept the fire burning in Miami.

"Hey Heat guys, we missed you in the White House this year!
"Hey Heat guys, we missed you in the White House this year!
W. Bennett Berry

So, if you're wondering why the post-LeBron Heat haven't been able to float themselves above .500, the reason is as obvious as you might think. Injuries. Matt Pineda of Hot Hot Hoops puts it best:

[Injuries have] been what hurt Miami to start the season, and really [have] been the biggest catalyst from stopping the Heat to reaching their potential. Obviously, just at the time the team was clicking, Josh McRoberts went down with a season ending knee injury. That hurts, that was their MLE pick-up, and really how they were going to glue their offense together.

Then, we've also had Wade miss 10 games (1/4 of the season), and Bosh miss 8 games. Mind you, those were all different games. That's 18 games out of 40 that the Heat have not had their power combo of Wade-Bosh. That's a lot of basketball to have your two best players not together. It's created some problems, and they are just now working through that.

Another thing that's really hindered the Heat so far is their lack of backcourt scoring. Both Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, whom benefited from LeBron's ball-sucking presence, have seen their usage go up and their efficiency go down from last season. The rookie the Heat have brought in to help them out, Shabazz Napier, has been all over the map in terms of usefulness. Meanwhile, the Heat's options at swingman aren't much better. Danny Granger, the Indiana castaway, has been abysmal aside from a short four game burst of efficiency right around the new year. James Ennis, the athletic rookie mostly remembered for a incredible dunk on Rasual Butler, has been in and out of games all season.

Still, don't get me wrong. These aren't last year's Miami Heat. Luol Deng hasn't simply replaced LeBron James. This year's Heat team is tooled entirely differently. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel explains:

The track shoes have been put in storage. What the Miami Heat have been offering these days is far more methodical than maniacal. And it's all been by design.

"I like the pace we're doing," guard Dwyane Wade said before Tuesday night's game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center. "I thought early on we were going too fast. I knew it wasn't going to hold up for a whole season. I like the pace we're going.

"The thing is, we're a good shooting team. If we stop turning the ball over, we can get the ball in the hands of the guys that need to get it to make plays, to get shots."

The Heat went into Tuesday ranked dead last, 30th, in the NBA in pace, at 92.4 possessions per game. By contrast, the Golden State Warriors, the Heat's Wednesday opponents at Oracle Arena, went into Tuesday's averaging a league-best 101.9. Yet while the Heat also stood 28th in scoring entering the Lakers game, their offensive efficiency rank had them 16th overall.

"We're a young team," center Chris Bosh said. "That's why we need to slow it up. You can play fast as you get older. We were one of the oldest teams in the league the past couple of years and among the fastest, because we had that veteran know-how and savvy to come down and get in the offense quickly. Now we have to kind of be precise and get the ball to where it needs to go."

It's almost crazy to think of the Heat as a slow, young team. And I don't totally agree with the young part of that assessment. Sure, you could look at about half of the Heat's rotation and point out that they're younger. But really, the Heat have players aged all over the map. Sure, compared to last year's championship-built team of almost exclusively veterans, this year's Heat might seem young. But for all intents and purposes, when the game's on the line, the Heat are going to give you a lot more fight than a truly younger team like the Bucks might.

However, the fact that the Heat are playing at a slower pace is undeniable. It's been partially due to the mid-season addition of Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside was a so-so prospect back in the 2010 draft, and I remember him being a potential option for the Thunder to take with one of their many picks that year. Whiteside got lost in the nightmare known as Sacramento though, and was cut two years into his career. Whiteside had to battle his way through the D-League, China, and Lebanon before finally finding a role in Miami this year. To give you an idea of what Hassan is capable of, here's his averages over the past 10 games: 10.3 points, 66% from the field, 2.0 ORB, 6.3 DRB, and 2.8 blocks in 21 minutes.

From watching footage of Whiteside, it's apparent that he's got some nice moves to score near the rim. But the key to Hassan's scoring lies in him getting near the rim off-ball, either via a pick and roll or sheer strength. Whiteside can't really create for himself on the block or anything, so it'll be up to the stoutness of Adams and Perk to keep Hassan from getting easy points. Chris Andersen basically fills the same role off the bench, except while providing ten times more defense. Andersen is questionable for tonight though, citing illness.

Speaking of injuries, Dwayne Wade's strained left hamstring looms over this game. If it's healed enough, Wade should be good to go. If not, the extra scoring responsibility generally slides over to Bosh and Deng equally. There isn't really enough trust to give more offensive possessions to the other perimeter players, and the Heat don't really have a non-Bosh post player that can create for themselves.

Still, Wade's presence shouldn't really affect the Thunder's strategy. No matter what OKC does, Miami is likely going to have a good shooting night from the floor. The Heat are almost the exact opposite of the Magic in that respect. Thus, I'm hoping the Thunder will up the pressure and trapping a bit in this game. Still, the Thunder should also continue to go big, giving minutes to Perkins and possibly Collison. The Heat only lose games when they lose the turnover or rebounding battle, so the Thunder should do all they can to secure those two areas.

Offensively, the Thunder need to work Whiteside in the pick and roll. Hassan is slow and will always play deep, so if OKC can get him to play out a bit in the high post then I think Westbrook can take full advantage. When the benches come in, Waiters and Jackson should do all they can to attack Birdman down low.

Anyway, tonight's game is extremely winnable. The Thunder are going to have to adjust from the way they played on Sunday night, but it's nothing they haven't done before. Whether Wade plays or not is big, but I'm going to say that the Thunder win this one either way. These slowly paced Heat don't play a lot of close games, and Miami's been blown away by the West's high-octane powerhouses more than once.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 107, Miami Heat 89.

What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2014-15 NBA Season Game 41
(Won 2)

(Won 1)
January 20th, 2015
American Airlines Arena, Miami, Florida
6:30 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Fox Sports Network Sun Sports
Injury Report: Dwayne Wade, Chris Andersen (Questionable), Mitch McGary, Josh McRoberts(Out)
Last Season's Matchups: Jan 29 (W 112-95), Feb 21 (L 81-103)
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Shabazz Napier
Andre Roberson SG Dwayne Wade
Kevin Durant SF Luol Deng
Serge Ibaka PF Chris Bosh
Steven Adams C Hassan Whiteside