Tuesday, May 24, 2011
A 15-point lead with 4:49 left to play.
A 10-point lead with 2:23 left to play.
What followed was some of the most unexplainable, historic, and chaotic basketball most have ever witnessed.
Years from now, this was the type of game that those who weren't at the arena will claim they were and those who went to sleep when the lead was 15 will always deny it.
This was the win that you had to see to believe. And really, it still is not easy to comprehend.
You can watch 1,000 NBA Games and never see that. The Dallas Mavericks did something so unlikely in Game 4 in Oklahoma City after a night of such disappointing results, that one can easily summarize the moments late last night under the heading of, "It might just be their year".
Because, let look for another explanation. They were annihilated in rebounding by a 55-33 margin. In fact, with 5 minutes to go in regulation, I offered the following observations via Twitter from the arena: "Mavs being outboarded 45-21. And outscored in the paint 54-34. Very weak effort all in all."
The Mavericks spent most of the evening allowing the Thunder to get some pretty easy points. There were 2 inbounds plays early in the game where the Mavericks had the ball stolen on the inbounds pass and converted into dunks immediately. They looked a step slow in both body and mind for almost the entire game.
Admirably, the Mavericks stuck around in through the storm early. The Thunder wanted to blow them out of the building in the 1st Half - and almost did. They hit their first 9 field goal attempts and Kevin Durant in particular appeared to be a man on a mission after a disappointing Game 3. He started the game in a mode that made him quite unguard-able. The lead was pushed to a dozen on many occasions in that 1st Half, but the Mavericks would hit a shot and keep hanging around.
At the half, the lead was merely 5 points, 59-54, and you could feel the entire arena grow a bit uneasy with that. After what seemed to be a dominating 24 minutes of basketball, the lead sat only at 5? What more could they throw at Dallas?
The 3rd Quarter was the Jason Terry show. He hit many important shots and the Mavericks actually were able to trim the lead all the way down to 2 late in the 3rd Quarter, 79-77 when Brendan Haywood put back a missed shot. The Quarter ended 81-77, and the Mavericks were still in a game in which they were having all sorts of trouble.
For instance, they were not being out-rebounded slightly. They were being dominated. In the 1st Half, the Thunder had grabbed 19 of the games 30 rebounds. A 19-11 split is quite impressive from the Oklahoma City standpoint, and thoroughly disappointing from a Dallas standpoint. The 3rd Quarter continued on the trend. In that period, the Thunder secured 14 of the 21 possible rebounds. For the game, the rebounding edge was now an insane 33-18. It was almost as if the Mavericks were not even making an effort.
As a reference, depending on who you ask, most coaches will tell you that the defensive team should secure about 70-75% of all rebounds on their end of the court, given their inside positioning and advantages that defense supplies. Well, through 3 Quarters, on defense, the Mavs had secured only 52% of defensive rebounds. They were leaking all over the court as Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka, and Russell Westbrook repeatedly pulled out offensive glass for the Thunder. Meanwhile, on offense, it was even worse. 4 of a possible 24 rebounds went to Dallas for 16%. They just didn't look up for the fight.
Again, they weren't being beaten. They were being run off the court in the areas where desire and effort are best measured. Points in the paint and rebounding were all going the Thunder's way. They weren't trying to win this game, they were taking this game.
But, the 4th Quarter is where the Mavericks played some of their worst basketball of the night. They started the quarter just down 4 and were very much in the game. But, for the next 7 minutes, nobody would score but JJ Barea. That was most likely because nobody was making an effort to get close to the hoop other than Barea. He scored from 5, 2, and 6 feet in those 7 minutes as he was putting up 7 points. Otherwise, Terry launched 2 shots from 25 feet, Kidd took a long 3, and Barea tried one, too. They all missed. Dirk took a couple jumpers from about 18 feet. Those both missed. No jump shots were falling. At all.
Meanwhile, Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant were causing havoc on the other end of the court. In one sequence with about 8 minutes to play, Ibaka rejected a Nowitzki shot, ran to the other end, rebounded a Durant miss, put it back up - missed again, rebounded again, and finally converted. The Thunder just wanted it more.
Then the sequence where many in attendance and around the country watching on television misidentified as the "dagger"; With just over 5 minutes left, Westbrook missed a 3 pointer, only to have Nick Collison get yet another offensive rebound and fire it out to Durant who purely sank a majestic 3. The arena went absolutely bonkers and the Mavericks with shoulders slumped wandered to the bench for yet another timeout. 99-84. 5:06 left and this game is over.
We will never know how many people clicked the game off at this juncture. And who could blame them? There is no such thing as a blown 15-point lead with 5 minutes to play. It is simply next-to-impossible to pull off. We also won't know what Rick Carlisle told his team there. He substituted Shawn Marion for JJ Barea, which appeared slightly dubious since nobody had scored in the 4th besides Barea, but down 15 points, he tried something different.
And, this is why we love sports. This is why we tune in. Because sometimes, when you least expect it - and against all odds - the impossible happens.
In the last 15 years, no team has blown a 15-point lead with 5 minutes to play in a playoff game. The pace with which a collapse would have to take place makes it nearly impossible.
Before this series started, a few basketball wise men indicated to me what we were all thinking: Chances are, at some point of this series, when a game is close and time is running out - OKC will reveal itself as a very young team that is not quite prepared for the moment. When they were so flawless in Game 2, I recalled that discussion, and was quite impressed with the composure of the Thunder and their lack of fear for the moment.
But, in these last two games, in front of an adoring crowd that clearly unites as one voice, the ultra-talented crew from Oklahoma City has not quite kept composure in the final moments. And this is where they left the door cracked just a bit.
Dallas chipped away at the lead with a number of free throws - one foul which disqualified James Harden for the remainder of the game. That would impact the options for OKC on offense for sure. Dirk hit his first FG of the quarter with 3:15 to play on a shot that cut it to 99-91 with plenty of time left, but after yet another Collison offensive rebound, Westbrook hit a free-throw line jumper and the lead was 10 points with just 150 seconds to play. The Thunder still were comfortable.
And that is when amazing started to happen.
Dirk stepped into and fired a straight on 3-pointer right over Collison with 2:22 left. 101-94. 11 seconds later, Westbrook missed both of his free throws - a highly unlikely scenario for a 84% free throw shooter. Marion gets the rebound and moments later Dirk might have hit one of the signature shots of his career. I think you could best describe it as a well-guarded, fade away, double-pump shot in which he was hit pretty hard. No call, but also no rim. And the lead was just 5, 101-96.
With 1:38 left, Westbrook misses a 15-footer, and down the other way comes Dirk again. Now, fully in "beast mode", Dirk wants the ball up high in the lane, and after a few twists, puts another right over Collison and right through the hoop. 101-98, and the arena tension is easily detectable.
Just over a minute left, and what looked like the opportunity of the night slipped through Dallas' fingers. Shawn Marion, after another night of hounding Durant as well as can be expected, helped steal the ball and was open for a pass on the fast break. However, Jason Terry elected to take it himself, but a great recovery by Thabo Sefolosha with a block and rebound kept the lead at 3. Now, Oklahoma City has the ball and the 3-point lead with 40 seconds to play. But, Westbrook - who does not fear taking the big shot - misses another jumper and Dallas is back in business because Westbrook then immediately fouls Marion and the Mavs get another point without the clock ticking.
In those final 5 minutes, the Thunder took 9 shots and hit just 1. Had they hit 2 of 9, they win the game. But, after a miss from the corner by Sefolosha, Dirk is fouled on the other end when Collison grabs him around the waist on a pick and roll. Dirk hits both free throws and the game is tied - and Nowitzki had scored 12 in the 4th Quarter and 38 in regulation.
One last possession from the Thunder in regulation - and there is Marion again on Durant. First, he forces Durant to catch the pass out near the time line. Then, he actually challenges a deep 3 by blocking it at the apex of the shot. This is a very impressive play that offers an awfully high-risk factor if you clip even a portion of Durant's hand. But, no contact and no foul and this game is tied for the first time since 0-0 and overtime will be required.
Overtime required one gigantic moment. Tied at 105-105 with inside a minute to play, Kidd and Marion stole the ball from Durant (something that they both appear to be pretty successful at doing) and Kidd then made himself available in the corner in case Dirk needed an outlet. Nowitzki went right off the high post but as the traffic came to him, he kicked it out to the always-composed Kidd in the right corner. A pump fake to lure Westbrook into the air and then a 3-point bomb that proved to be the winning moment was provided by the oldest man on the court. A few free throws later, and the Mavericks performed a historic smash-and-grab heist of Game 4.
Dominated for most of the night and with plenty to examine moving forward, the Mavericks ripped out the heart and likely the hope of the young Thunder and their fans in those final 5 minutes in the 4th Quarter.
It again showed determination and will of the highest amount. It showed that this team can beat you in many different ways and that you better not consider a game in the bag until all of the time has expired.
Any of us who think we know what lies ahead are deluding ourselves. There are so many unexpected turns in the road that nobody can predict it seems.
But, this Mavericks team - despite some faults that put them in some very undesired situations - has a resolve that champions are made of.
Only time will tell if they will be called champions. But, they can win the Western Conference crown in front of their home fans and against a demoralized opponent on Wednesday night.
What a ride.