Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Morning After: Game 2 - OKC 102, Mavericks 99 (2-0)

One more play.

The NBA game is a curious one. One that presents us with almost 3 hours of theater in which their can be hundreds of events that lead to victory. And yet, many observers often walk away wondering why they watch the 1st 75-90% of the game. Because, often, it seems that only the final few minutes - often referred to as "crunch time" - is all that truly matters.

One team gets out to a huge lead. The other team fights back. Then, they take a lead. Then the first team gets going again. Back and forth we go. Runs on both sides. But, seldom, especially in the playoffs, is anything decided before the final few minutes.

And in that portion of the game, each team will get the ball about 5 times. During those 5 possessions, the game will be decided. If you can get 3 baskets, you usually will win the game. And in this phase of the NBA playoff game, the Dallas Mavericks have gone from the team that can always figure out how to win to the team that is coming up one play short.

And that is why rash conclusions are dangerous in a situation like this. Again, in Game 2, the Oklahoma City won a game on their home court to the delight of their capacity crowd. They are over the moon with this performance and are full of confidence. And yet, their win was largely a result of two plays late in the game that they had almost no role in.

Play #1 was with 1:15 to play in the game with the Mavericks leading by a point, 97-96. Jason Terry was sliding off Dirk Nowitzki on a pick and roll on the left wing and both Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins went with Terry. This left the kick back to Dirk wide open right in front of the Thunder bench. Perkins as standing in the paint. Westbrook was 12 feet away. Dirk sized up his open shot and in the background you can see a few Thunder fans holding their heads in agony because they have seen this too many times. Dirk has an unguarded look at a clutch shot that will give the Mavericks a multiple possession lead with a minute to play. He makes this shot. He did in Miami. He did in Los Angeles. He doesn't miss when it counts when you dare him to hit it wide open. But even though he held the follow-thru in his patented way, he caught the front rim as his shot was a few inches short. He missed the shot and kept the Thunder in a comfortable spot. And Oklahoma City had nothing to do with this play.

Play #2 was a mere 25 seconds later. After a great possession defensively which included Shawn Marion and Dirk both defending shots in the paint, the Thunder had an inbounds play with :02 left on the shot clock. The Thunder sent Derek Fisher over to Kevin Durant to pick Durant's man (Marion) and make him switch with Fisher's man (Jason Terry). This, of course, is the type of basic strategy that happens hundreds of times a game, to find a match-up that suits the offense. In retrospect, you wonder if the Mavericks should have been more prepared for this with Marion fighting through it a little harder or Kidd switching over to Durant, but Terry tried to take Durant in those fateful 2 seconds that might have cost Dallas Game 2. As the ball is inbounded, Terry tries to jump the route of Durant and goes for the ball. He really isn't close to his goal and instead offers the Thunder a lifeline when they did not earn one. Terry's decision should have been to play strong defense and make Durant hit a difficult shot falling out of bounds (which he might). But, instead, Terry's bump is rightly called a foul and Durant gives the Thunder a lead they never lose by hitting 2 free throws on a possession that was doomed. And Oklahoma City had very little to do with this play.

From there, Dirk missed a contested post move that bounced on the rim 3 times and we are left feeling rather similar to how we might have felt on Saturday night after Game 1. The Mavericks played well enough to win, but did not make enough plays in the final moments to achieve their victory. Instead, we are rationalizing and breaking down the final few plays and the Thunder are riding high on their way to Dallas for Game 3.

In the words of Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki, we should not dig too deep when analyzing these games. It is simply a matter of Oklahoma City "making one more play".

And, I think they are right.

But, then again, that is this NBA. That is what separates the winners from the losers every year. That is what made Jordan's Bulls better than Ewing's Knicks. It wasn't 40 point margins. It was 88-87 here, and 103-102 there. The very nature of the NBA game is one more play. Especially in the playoffs. A quick review of last year's championship run will tell the truth. It wasn't an avalanche of Mavericks' domination. It was a single play here and a single play there. And like a hot run in blackjack or your best round of golf ever, when it is over and you no longer have the hot hand, you wonder what has changed. How do you get that advantage back?

Are they too old? Are they too tired? Is it Oklahoma City's time? Did Mark Cuban mess this all up with his decisions before Christmas? Can we still blame Khloe?

Without knowing where the truth fully lies, the Mavericks are left feeling like they played 2 pretty strong and gutty road games and still find themselves in must-win territory on Thursday in Dallas. There is plenty left to improve, but there is also that sinking feeling that last year, they would have won one or both of these games by making that one more play. Last spring, Dirk hits that shot. And then every other talking point and detail does not seem nearly as important.

On the other hand, if Kobe hits that shot at the end of Game 1 last May, maybe the entire narrative of that dream playoff run turns out differently.

Tough to bite the hand of fate, when that hand has fed you so well.

Dust off and keep grinding.

Other thoughts about Game 2 in Oklahoma City:

* Dirk's effort should not be remembered for missing an open 3 late in the game. The fact is that his performance last night was one of his finest efforts. Playing with great determination and defiance. Hitting shots and not taking any garbage from the opposition. It is amazing to know that the NBA once employed the tactics of bullying Dirk and making him shy away from contact. That was a lifetime ago. This Dirk is not backing down from anyone. He isn't impressed by your muscles or scowl or the noise that comes out of your mouth. This Dirk is a ruthless, cold-blooded killer. To appreciate how tough he is now is only possible if you know what 20-year old Dirk played like. The evolution of the player is what makes his story so enjoyable. He has really grown up before our eyes and is now the man that many wondered if it were ever possible. You just love his mentality and wish the results were always as storybook as last spring.

* Which brings us to the moment in Game 2 that will be rerun the most. With 6 minutes to go in the opening quarter, Dirk hit a shot where Serge Ibaka looked to poke him in the eye inadvertently. The referees called nothing and this served to fire up Dirk even more. Next time down, Kendrick Perkins levels Marion with a pick and there is no call. Down on the other end, Dirk hits another shot in Ibaka's face and is looking as angry as ever. On Defense, Dirk is on the post with Perkins, and Perkins starts with the sharp elbow routine on his post move, then barrels in on a rebound attempt on a Durant shot that is more a chance to take a run at Dirk from behind. Dirk is waiting on him, and answers with a sharp elbow of his own and it explodes. Perkins does the normal tough-guy routine where he tries to get away from everyone holding him back while barking at Dirk from behind 5 guys. Dirk stand there and barks back. Rick Carlisle charges across the court and makes it clear to Oklahoma City that he has had it with the goon approach that started last spring with Perkins and Tyson Chandler. Perkins was simply doing his only contributing skill of getting physical and Dirk was answering the bell by showing it wasn't going to change him. In the end, it elongated the 1st Quarter, but the game went on rather peacefully. But, it does show how far the game gets out of hand when the refs completely swallow their whistles.

* And from that point on, there would be no more "prison rules". 54 fouls would be called, up a dozen from game 1, and the constant trips to the free throw line did nothing to help the flow of the game. However, these are two teams that know how to convert the freebies. When the worst-shooting performance from either team was 28-32 (Dallas, 88%), then you see that those points will be converted. Oklahoma City hit 37-39, 95%, and in a tight game like last night we certainly cannot underestimate such a thing.

* Those that refuse to want to revisit the Tyson Chandler decision may want to skip this point. Every time we look for culprits or reasons this team is not as good as last year's edition of the Mavericks, you keep coming back to letting one of your best players leave at the age of 29 for a contract that did not seem excessive (by NBA standards) in both salary and term. And yet, the Mavericks drew a curious line in the sand with Chandler and sent the real leader of this team away with the implied promise of future signings. In the meantime, a title defense and a wasted year of Nowitzki's remaining prime seems to make the decision a poor one. Further, a buyout of the disappointing Brendan Haywood (who gave the Mavericks very, very little) would have made it possible to keep Chandler, defend your title, and still be in the mix for Deron Williams in the summer. Yes, that is all water under the bridge and we should just move on, but when watching your core who worked so hard to get the trophy fighting their tails off, but being exposed because there is a giant piece missing from the puzzle, I keep coming back to it. And I think so do a lot of people who follow this team. It just doesn't make sense that the Mavericks made that decision. I feel like Mark Cuban gets most of his decisions right. But, wow, I have to believe he would privately concede that he screwed that one up. Every time someone tries to get tough with the Mavericks, every time a player drives right down the paint, and every time the Mavericks cannot secure a rebound, it is tough to forget about the greatest center in team history was here and seemed like he wanted to stay. OK. Got that out of my system. Sorry.

* Derek Fisher may be irritating and annoying, but some guys just know how to step up and do things when you need them most. Very impressive. When the Lakers sent him away, I wondered if he would contribute much in OKC. He clearly has, if last night is all he does. That was worth it. Like Peja in Game 2 against Portland last year, if a veteran gives you one playoff win contribution, he is worth the signing. I feel Delonte West may be a similar player before this series is over. He was good in Game 2, but there should be even better soon to come.

* Both teams missed enough open shots from guys who normally knock them down that whoever lost was going to point at that. Just as Dirk did, Kevin Durant missed some looks where he was not guarded by anyone. If the Thunder have a reason to feel great, it is that they are up 2-0, with Durant really struggling to find his offensive efficiency. Dallas knows how to guard him, but he didn't win 3 straight scoring titles without having nights where he cannot be guarded by anyone. If that arrives in Dallas, this could be a really quick series.

In total, Dallas still has a fine chance in this series, but their mulligans are gone. They cannot afford to lose any games in Dallas. Oklahoma City feels an ability to out-last the Mavericks at crunch time. Time is short. The playoff run is already in peril.

They have but one objective on Thursday: One more play.

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