Sunday, April 29, 2012
If he is going to make that shot at that moment... Well, sometimes, you might just have to tip your cap and go on to Game 2.
There are many talking points about the Mavericks' first night of playoff basketball since that glorious night in Miami 10 1/2 months ago, but really, like so many games between these teams in this city come down to, there is going to be a shot made at the end of the game - and you just hope there is no time left for the other team to respond.
And last night, the Thunder, like games earlier in the year on this same court between these same teams, survived an effort from Dallas where the Mavericks appeared to have a lead that would get them a victory. Only to be shown a defeat in an excruciating manner.
Kevin Durant did the deed. His shot that caught the left side of the rim, worked its way off the glass, before ultimately falling through was the final blow in a Game 1 win for the Thunder in very dramatic fashion. Shawn Marion was in his face contesting the shot as well as possible, but the NBA's leading scorer three-years-running just hit an exceptional shot with :01.5 seconds left. Dallas was caught with no timeouts and Dirk Nowitzki on the bench, so time expired before a desperation heave could even be attempted.
After the game, Nowitzki said something that seemed to summarize this 2011-12 Mavericks campaign: "I feel like all season long, for some reason, teams are making one more play, one more bounce." And that best captures Game 1.
The Mavericks did so many things well that should have led them to snag Game 1. Jason Terry was on fire and hitting his famous cold-blooded shots all night long. Jason Kidd was back to his playoff form of a season ago with steals and assists and important shots at important times. And Dirk, despite being held in check for large swaths of the evening, delivered 11 points in the 4th Quarter and gave Dallas a lead with :09 to go. Yet, the Thunder made one more play.
Dallas, a team that won a title last year with the notable ability to make opponent leads disappear with great ease, showed unbecoming generosity in the late stages of this opener in OKC. Dirk hit a shot from 17 feet with 2:30 to go to give the Mavericks a 94-87 advantage. Running down the floor he flashed his sneer at the home crowd and all seemed to point to a gigantic opening game win on the road.
However, the Thunder went on a 12-4 run that included 2 Durant free throws, a Serge Ibaka basket and a foul, a Durant dunk, another Ibaka basketball and a foul, and finally the dagger with less than 2 seconds to play. Meanwhile, the Mavericks possessions were far less efficient. A contested 3-pointer from Dirk that seemed unnecessary, a Dirk turnover, a chaotic possession that somehow ended up in Ian Mahinmi being fouled and hitting 2 free throws, another Dirk turnover, and finally Nowitzki giving the Mavericks the lead with :09 to go.
That particular possession is worth discussing a bit. Nowitzki rebounded a Durant miss and the Mavericks used their final timeout with :24 to play, down 97-96. They would get one possession to win Game 1. Knowing they had no timeouts left, it was imperative that they try to take the clock as far down as possible before going. If they are playing to preserve a plan even if they miss, that is even less likely given the lack of timeouts. They must make this final possession count. And that is why it seemed curious that Dirk would begin his move with about :12 left on Kendrick Perkins. We have seen Dirk on so many occasions wait about five seconds longer, but for whatever reason, he went earlier and drew a foul to give the Mavericks the lead. And honestly, there is no reason to believe that Durant wouldn't have still hit a shot even if the Thunder had the ball at half-court with :03 left instead of :09. But, I wondered about Rick Carlisle's use of his timeouts in this game and Nowitzki's decision to go so early when the Mavericks could have made their possession the final shot of the game.
And that, maybe, is the margin in these playoff games. Dallas did many things correctly, but somehow managed to lose. They are matched up against a team that suits their style about as well as any potential opponent. The Thunder are not a team that will physically dominate them on the glass, and that was demonstrated in Game 1 where Dallas held a rebounding advantage and a rare free throw advantage, as well. They held the NBA's 3-time leading scorer to 25 points on 27 shots. But, he still hit that shot at that moment to get that win.
Certainly, there is no reason for the Mavericks to leave without encouragement. Both teams know that Dallas is not a typical 7-seed and they do have a style that troubles the Thunder. But, as any seasoned NBA viewer knows, these games are exhausting and difficult to win. You cannot play well enough to win too many times without victory and not have an early summer to show for it.
Other notes and thoughts about Game 1:
* The continuing adventures of Rodrigue Beaubois are always notable. Last season, the Mavericks were more likely to use Brad Davis or Derek Harper in a game before they would consider Beaubois. But, there was some belief that he would have to play an important role this season if the Mavericks are to advance a round. And yet, in Game 1, there was another "DNP-CD" for Beaubois as the coach who always prefers the proven veterans, once again preferred the proven veterans.
* Serge Ibaka was sensational in Game 1. 22 points, 6 rebounds, 5 blocked shots, and countless other altered shots. Ibaka plays high above the rim, and seems to have a vertical lift that troubles Dallas in the paint. He blocked 10 Mavericks' shots back in February, and now 21 in the last 3 games against Dallas. He certainly doesn't provide the points of Durant, Westbrook, or Harden, but the 22-year old from Congo is that perfect role player who doesn't need shots to contribute. He can know his role, receive passes under the hoop and then finish with ferocity. The Mavericks' simply must foul him harder so that he is not turning those easy dunks into 3 point plays. And speaking of 3-point plays, how about that shot before the half after the questionable foul on Dirk? Critical and pivotal, to say the least.
* And, speaking of questionable fouls, Carlisle did what coaches who lose in the playoffs always do. He took on the officials' handling of defense on Dirk: “I’ve seen this for four years. Dirk Nowitzki’s the hardest guy in the league to guard because at 22 feet, if you back up and take your hands off him, he’s going to make the shot. So people grab and hold him all the time. I mean, all the time. He shows incredible restraint in those areas.” We shall see what effect this has on Game 2, but in the playoffs, fouls don't get called much. Is he getting defended illegally? Maybe, but it looks like Marion is trying to get physical with Durant, too. I think it is nearly impossible to build the case against officiating this time of year. It seems like they switch to "prison rules" mode quite a bit.
* Scott Brooks is generally critiqued for his tactics, and in this series, it often revolves around his plans to defend Dirk. Ibaka took some turns and I think Nick Collison is always useful in this match-up. But, down the stretch, it was plenty of Kendrick Perkins on Dirk tight with Ibaka lurking as support help on drives. Not an idea that I would have thought would be effective, but given that Dirk was well under his 32-point average from last year's Western Conference Finals, I imagine Brooks and Perkins are feeling pretty good about the outcome. I am interested in the Mavericks counters on Monday.
* I have mixed emotions about the shot distribution in the 4th Quarter last night for Dallas. Jason Terry was having a wonderful performance through 3 quarters, and yet, only got the ball for 1 shot in the final quarter, despite playing 11:42 of it. Meanwhile, Vince Carter, in just under 7 minutes in the final quarter had 5 shots which made him the only Maverick besides Dirk with more than 2 shot attempts. But, before we get annoyed with Vince, we need to look at how his shots were taken. He was taking the ball hard at the rim and offering the squad some alternatives to the jump shots that normally characterize the offense. If he is going to go hard to the paint and finish inside (could have used one or two more conversions), then that might prove useful in this series. However, I still cannot allow the Thunder to keep Terry from putting his stamp on things. Dirk was determined last night, but I wonder if at times, he was actually too determined - playing his way into some turnovers that might have been avoided late.
* Russell Westbrook, one of the most polarizing players in the NBA, is full of talking points on a nightly basis. But his explosive and decisive play cannot be undersold. And his pull-up jumper with his odd body shape at release, seems pretty reliable. The Thunder as a whole are going to figure this all out at some point soon, and I wonder how close they are to that.
* Beyond all else, to see Kidd, Terry, Dirk, and Shawn Marion doing what they normally do in these playoff games, I have to confess that there was some level of therapeutic healing last night for what must be considered one of the oddest times of Mavericks basketball that I can remember. The nature of this season, full of title defense talk, player chaos, ownership decisions, and the feeling that the priorities for this franchise are far too focused on the future than the present has put many of us into some level of fog about what to think about this current crew. Many of the warriors of this team have in some ways been discarded in the fans' minds already even though they still fight for the team every night. Meanwhile, ideas of what future players might arrive in July has been given too much attention. But, to watch those 4 players in particular, the spine of the championship team that made dreams come true in 2011, fight again together in playoff basketball last night was enjoyable. This current crew might be making their last stand, but you can still see why they are special. They have turned up their game a notch and will most certainly not go quietly into the night. They have, as many in their spot have had before them, the heart of champions. And despite the fact that they may be scattered soon to other franchises, I think last night there was some "Mavericks healing" from watching familiar warriors doing familiar things again. This season isn't about Deron Williams, Dwight Howard, Lamar Odom, or even Mark Cuban. This season, to me, is about those 4 guys, a few muskets, a small reserve of ammo, and enemy forces surrounding them. They know it likely won't end well, but they are going to empty their guns either way.
Can't wait to see them push Oklahoma City hard on Monday Night.