Friday, May 20, 2011

The Morning After: Game 2 - Thunder 106, Mavericks 100 (1-1)

Not many NBA teams are able to span 27 days between playoff losses. But, the span will go no longer for the Dallas Mavericks as they were punched hard in the gut on Thursday Night at the AAC, dropping a 106-100 Thriller in Game 2 to Oklahoma City.

It is easy to focus exclusively on the Mavericks after these playoff games and whether the result is good, bad, or ugly, I enjoy spending time on the Dallas side of the equation. But, after last night, I think the lead has to be the coaching gambles that were won by Scotty Brooks in what most-likely go down as the biggest win in Thunder History.

Look at it from that perspective with me for a moment.

So, this young coach, who is handling an extremely young and inexperienced team, is entering the 4th Quarter with a 1-point lead. He only has that lead because James Harden just converted a 4-point play at the very end of the 3rd Quarter when he hit a trey and was fouled. He goes with his customary bench lineup to begin the 4th and to get his starters some rest and some time to harbor some foul trouble to Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka before they will have to go back in the paint and battle Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler for the final few minutes. Brooks cannot insert them back in the lineup too early, because he can't lose them too early. If he does, it is down to very little to try to leave town with the split that the Thunder so desired.

Brooks starts the 4th with Harden, DaeQuan Cook, Eric Maynor, Nick Collison, and of course, Kevin Durant. If they could hold off Dallas for 4 minutes or so, it will be time to get Russell Westbrook back in (18 points, 4 assists) and try to bring this thing home.

What followed were just under 9 minutes of clinical offense that put 25 points on the board. With 3:15 to play, the game was largely in hand at 102-92. The Thunder had the ball 15 times during that 8:45 to start the 4th. They scored on 11 of the 15 possessions. It was absolutely devastating to Dallas who was able to get Dirk just about anything he wanted during that stretch, but it still wasn't enough to keep up with the exhibition that James Harden, Kevin Durant, and friends were putting on at the other end.

Sometimes, you blame your defense. If you review that 4th Quarter stretch, you will certainly be frustrated at a moment or two, but for the most part, I submit the Thunder were taking shots that you don't mind conceding. Harden and Durant were both hitting very tough, well defended shots from a great distance. But, sometimes, especially in the NBA where shotmakers are everywhere, there is just nothing you can do.

And on those rare occasions where Harden or Durant did not carry the mail, here is Eric Maynor, the pride of Virginia Commonwealth, driving in for a tough running bucket. He had 2 baskets during this stretch, too. Daequan Cook chipped in 5 points, including a 3 out of a timeout to make it 98-92. And Nick Collison even added a dunk and some rather important moments on defense - 1 which he just wrestled the ball away from Nowitzki and started the ball the other way.

Cook, Maynor, and Collison? Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City starters - aside from the league's leading scorer - had a great view of the proceedings, but certainly spent glances wondering when Brooks was going to send them back in the game. It wasn't as if Westbrook wasn't playing well. He had a very nice first 3 Quarters. Obviously, he is the item of some discussion based on periods of erratic play, but he is also a pillar of this franchise and these are the moments for him to shine. Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka stand by to force the issues in the paint where Dirk is knifing in for basket after basket.

But Brooks held fast with his lineup. With 7 minutes to go, the thoughts crossed his mind. The offense was fine but the defense was not stopping Dirk and JJ Barea. Inside 6 minutes, it is still a 1-possession game. This is a spot where most coaches certainly take their winnings from their bench standing up to the pressure on the road and play it by the book; getting his starters back in the game to finish the contest.

Brooks opted to roll the dice again. And his next decision (to not change his lineup) is the type of decision that if it doesn't work is widely ridiculed by the media and fans based on the outcome. How can you let Eric Maynor and Nick Collison stay in the game when you have better options on the bench? And that is where it worked. From 5:30 to go to 3:15 to go, the Thunder bench crew beat the hard Charging Mavericks 7-0. Taking a 3 point lead and pushing it to 10 with a 3 from Cook, a Maynor runner, and one of the most in-your-face jumpers of the playoffs as Harden buries one from the top of the circle with confidence and a beard that made Dallas observers channel nightmares of Baron Davis.

He never went back to his bench. The combined playing time in the 4th Quarter from the OKC 4 starters not named Durant? Less than a minute. 37 seconds for Ibaka and 13 seconds for Thabo Sefolosha. Westbrook and Perkins had 0:00.

What a gutty decision that had a very high risk/reward ratio. The Mavericks not only lost the battle of the benches, but the Thunder bench beat the Mavericks in crunch time. Quite impressive.

From a Dallas perspective, you certainly can find items to critique. You wish the defense could have provided more stops and that Dirk could have showed Collison a few more lessons on the other end. But, sometimes you give away a game and sometimes it is taken from you. In Game 2, I submit that in that 4th Quarter, the game was taken away by the visiting Thunder. Who made tough shots, tough decisions as a coaching staff, and overall deserved to tie this series at 1-1.

If they are going to make those shots under those circumstances from those distances, then I believe you tip your hat, thank the basketball gods that it has been 27 days since you last tasted defeat, and move on to the next one.

As former Cowboys coach Joe Avezzanno used to tell me, "you know, the other team pays its players, too".

Other notes and observations from an entertaining night in Dallas:

*- There is obviously a big decision that Rick Carlisle is wrestling with. The Mavericks have a more powerful roster right now than I can ever remember, but he still has a number of 1-way players that make him sacrifice on one end for the good of the team on the other end. Too much DeShawn Stevenson or Brendan Haywood means a stagnant offense. Too much JJ Barea or Peja Stojakovic means the defense is too easy to attack. Every team has players like this, but last night there seemed to be many occasions where you would like Peja out there, but he needs Stevenson to try to get a stop or two. Picking the right guy at the right moment is a thing of genius. Picking the wrong guy means Durant blows by Peja in the blink of an eye to dunk on Haywood with authority that would give Shawn Bradley the shivers. Some guys cannot guard. And some guys cannot be guarded.

*- If I concede that the 3-pointer is not the evil crutch I make it out to be all of the time after the dynamic shooting nights versus Los Angeles in Games 3-4, then certainly I am allowed to point out that there are games like last night where 27 3-pointers make a lot more sense if you are actually making a few. When the shooters on this team are hitting their shots, there is very little someone can do to stop them. But, when Jason Terry reverts to the bad version of Terry, then this team starts to seek answers to complicated questions. There is nothing complicated about admitting that besides Dirk, this team is dependent on shooters hitting shots from deep. By the way, so is Oklahoma City. If Harden is not unconscious at key moments, they don't win. And if Terry can match him, Dallas is back in business. He couldn't. DeShawn Stevenson felt compelled to take 6 3-pointers (1-6). And the team in general hit 9 out of 27. Of course, that means 18 possessions ended with a 23-25 footer clanking off the rim and the Mavs getting nothing from that precious possession.

*- The Russell Westbrook subplot is amazing. You wonder if the game was lost last night by the Thunder if that would have been the proverbial "point of no return". As it stands, Brooks and Westbrook's odd relationship will turn another chapter with Westbrook attempting to prove to the world that he is worthy of his "All-NBA" status. Look for him to attempt to take over Game 3 in front of the friendly confines. He is very good and yet at the eye of the storm. He is also playing a team with very few appealing defensive options. This is quite interesting.

*- Because the Mavericks have some real defensive riddles to solve, they are turning more and more to the zone to attempt to slow Durant, Westbrook, and Harden. The issue with the zone at the NBA level is knowing your assignments on the glass. Also, it allows an opposing coach to dictate matchups, so when you see Durant posting up Terry on the high post, know that this is a product of a zone rather than a desire of Dallas to try that strategy. Zones are a nice short-term gimmick in the NBA, not a solution for a 7-game series. You are going to have to guard them and make them miss shots man-to-man. And they have some very unguardable players.

*- Is the biggest matchup in the series Jason Terry vs James Harden? The battle of Sixth Men? If you think Harden "careered" last night, you are only half right. Yes, that is his career playoff high (23 points on just 9 shots) but this is not rare for him. That is a player who was quite familiar with the 20 point plateau, doing it 11 times this season. He is one of those guys who can really win a game for you and has no conscience when it comes to taking and making a big 3. Terry and Harden cannot guard eachother even though they are both asked to do so. It is going to be very important that Terry wins this battle this series. The good news is that I always have felt Jason Terry plays better on the road in the playoffs. He loves the hostile environment and will be ready to go on Saturday I assume. But, man, when he is not right, that pull up 3 with nobody else in a position to rebound is just maddening. He is a very up and down player. The Mavs need more up right now.

*- Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler were both bringing a positive impact in the game itself, but in the 4th Quarter, were unable to put much of a fingerprint on the proceedings. In fact, Dirk went 7-10 in the 4th Quarter as he got very determined. But, the Dirk versus the Thunder routine stalled late and that ended up being the difference. Only JJ Barea scored a hoop in the final Quarter besides Dirk. And the team was outshot in the final Quarter 65% to 41%. The Thunder enjoyed a phenomenal shooting night overall, hitting 62% of their 2-pointers and 56% of all of their attempts. Face it, they just wouldn't miss.

Well, that is done. Game 2 went to the proper team and we have a series. The Mavericks are seemingly past their history of being poor on the road in the playoffs. They closed out Portland in Game 6 in the Rose Garden and swept the Lakers in the Staples Center. Also, they won both trips to Oklahoma City already in the regular season and must figure out how to dig a game or two out of OKC in this series as well. That starts Saturday and the plot thickens.

You didn't think it was going to be easy, did you?

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