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Plenty at stake for Thunder, Heat
MIAMI -- The Oklahoma City Thunder can clinch a playoff spot with a win on Monday night over the host Miami Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena.
The Heat (43-37) are already in the playoffs, but they are coming off a brutal 122-98 loss to the New York Knicks on Friday and, six days before that, a loss to the Brooklyn Nets in overtime.
In other words, the Heat -- who are 4-4 in their past eight games -- are not riding into the playoffs with great momentum. They have two tough games to close out the regular season, against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Toronto Raptors this week.
Miami's opening-round Eastern Conference playoff opponent will be Toronto, the Boston Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers or the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Meanwhile, the Thunder (46-34) can finish anywhere between fourth or eighth in the wild Western Conference. Failing to make the playoffs is also a possibility.
On Saturday, the Thunder helped themselves by prevailing 108-102 over the host Houston Rockets, who have the best record in the NBA.
Russell Westbrook and Paul George scored 24 points each as Houston's 20-game home win streak was snapped.
"This game was important," Thunder forward Carmelo Anthony said. "But if we don't take care of business on Monday, then this game didn't really mean anything."
A desperate Thunder team will likely be a major challenge for the Heat, who have muddled through with a 14-15 record since Feb. 1, playing below-.500 basketball for two-plus months.
The Heat are 2-1 against the Celtics this season, 1-2 against the Cavaliers, 2-2 against the 76ers and 1-1 against the Raptors, and Miami players feel like they will have a legitimate chance against any opponent.
But closing the regular season in strong fashion -- starting with Oklahoma City on Monday -- is the first priority.
"You want to go into the playoffs on a high note," Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade said. "You don't want to go into the playoffs losing three games in a row. You want to go in feeling good about yourself."
The Heat and the Thunder are healthy for Monday's game. Guards Andre Roberson (Thunder) and Dion Waiters (Heat) have been out long term, but everyone else will be available.
The Heat will hope to slow down Westbrook, whose scoring is down by about six points per game from last season. Still, he has exceptional numbers when compared with almost every other player in the league, averaging 25.6 points and 9.8 rebounds while leading the league with 10.1 assists per game.
George is second on the team with a 21.6 scoring average. Anthony, who turns 34 next month, is averaging a career-low 16.3 points as he is no longer his team's primary scoring option.
Oklahoma City's fourth double-figure scorer is center Steven Adams, who is averaging 13.9 points and is second on the team in rebounds (behind Westbrook) with 9.1 boards per game.
Point guard Goran Dragic leads the Heat in scoring (17.5) and assists (4.8). Center Hassan Whiteside leads the team in rebounds (11.5) and blocks (1.7) while averaging 14.0 points per game.
On the wings, the Heat has several capable scorers, led by Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson, Wade and Wayne Ellington. All four score in double figures on average. In fact, Miami has nine double-figure scorers -- five more than the Thunder, who rely on a superstar approach.
Updated April 8, 2018