OKC Thunder vs Dallas Mavericks: Three Lingering Thoughts On Game 1 of Conference Finals

DALLAS, TX - MAY 17: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder shoots over Tyson Chandler #6 of the Dallas Mavericks in the second half in Game One of the Western Conference Finals during the 2011 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center on May 17, 2011 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

While Game One was heaven for stats savants (thanks, Dirk!), and really it should make any fan of the NBA happy to see two of its premier players going off for 40+ in a Game One, it did not bring joy in the end for the Thunder faithful. Indeed, my first reaction after watching the final seconds disappear, was the ever-so-eloquent, "Oh, crap, this isn't going to end well." However, that was the same reaction I had after the Thunder lost Game One to the Grizzlies. In that game too, the Grizz looked like both the irresistible force and the immovable object. Their schemes to get the ball to Z-Bo and Marc Gasol worked flawlessly and the duo chewed up the Thunder in a way we had not seen all season. All seemed lost.

But then, Game Two happened. The Thunder made adjustments. They figured out ways to make it harder for Randolph and Gasol to do what they wanted to do. The Thunder began to figure things out, and the Grizz finally fell at their hands.

In the same way, Dallas and Dirk Nowitzki looked all but unstoppable in their offensive efficiency and post-play. All seems lost, as if Dirk is going to go a collective 40-50 from the field, score 200 points, and will never be seduced by Serge Ibaka's voodoo charms.

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The one consistent thing Coach Scott Brooks has done in these playoffs is make game-to-game adjustments, and he is presented with this challenge once more.

So let's start with Dirk.

1. Play Dirk Nowitzki like the Thunder played Zach Randolph.

Well, first an admission. I found Dirk's play completely memorizing, and I think I've figured out why. It reminds me of something John Elway once said about the curse of the aging athlete. Elway said that just when the athlete finally gains all of the knowledge and experience he needs to deal with any situation, this is right around the same time his body starts to fail him. However, occasionally you get the briefest of moments, perhaps a single season, where the two come together. The body has not yet started to deteriorate, but the catalog of basketball knowledge has expanded to the point where every nuance in the game is effectively logged for future use. I think this is what we're seeing in Dirk right now, and to the best of my knowledge have not seen it since the 1997 season when Michael Jordan's career had a similar intersection. The player can see everything coming his way and always knows one or more options to overcome it. That was Nowitzki on Tuesday night.

With that said, what do the Thunder need to do to slow him down? There must be some option available, because he was much more pedestrian in the first round of the playoffs. Let's begin with Dirk's shot selection from Game One.

Dirk-nowitzki-shot-chart-tz_medium

Now, I'm not what you would call a statistician, but I am willing to argue that what we have here is both a trend line and a cluster. a) It is a trend line in the sense that every shot that Dirk made was well below the free throw line. He isn't being used in high screens, he isn't facing up at the top of the key and looking for shots, and he isn't looking to run a high post. That isn't to say of course that he can't, but that this set-up is Dirk's most preferred mode. b) We also have clusters, because you can see there were only three spots which Dirk made his shots - the left baseline, the right baseline (most preferred) and at the front of the rim. Which again is not to say that he can't make a shot from anywhere else, but if he is unimpeded, these are the three spots to which Dirk is going to station himself.

Ergo, if that is where Dirk wants to go, then the Thunder cannot let him go there. To do that, they need to take the same approach they took to Zach Randolph. Whatever spot Randolph wanted to go, he was met with a stout defender willing to push him a bit (or a lot). They refused to let Z-Bo go to where he wanted. Basketball (like Any Given Sunday) is a game of inches, and the Thunder defenders need to fight for that inch against Dirk. Does Dirk want the baseline where he has the most room to work without the threat of a double-team? Then fight him so that he has to post at the elbows. Does Dirk want to set up at 17 feet? Then push him to 18 feet out. Does he want to pivot and shoot? Then the defender needs to body up against him when he pivots. Does Dirk want to spin to the baseline? Then the Thunder need to hedge the baseline and make him drive to the lane.

From the moment Game One began, Dirk was given a cushion to catch and shoot, and it helped him establish a rhythm to the game where he could anticipate and then dictate whatever he wanted. The game will continue to be tough on OKC if the refs call it tight as they did in Game One, so the best defense is one that sets itself up early before the ball gets there. Dirk isn't going to out-quick anybody, so Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, or whomever should be able to body up against him immediately before he catches the ball. At the end of the day, Dirk, like Z-Bo, wants and needs space to operate. If the Thunder can take away just a little bit of that space, they can force him to go to his second and third options rather than his first choice, which is to turn, face up, and drop another rainbow jumper through the rim.

2. Russell Westbrook needs to be ready to shoot.

Westbrook did not play nearly as badly as everybody thought, because he still got to the free throw line to provide offense. However, the one thing that he did not do, which could have easily catapulted him into the 30 point range, was make the Mavericks pay for their defensive strategy.

What was their defensive strategy? I'm going to pick on our Mavs Moneyball brethren here for a moment:

"Let's make this straight: He had an off night. It wasn't anything the Mavericks have done defensively."

I would both agree and disagree with their assertion. It is not that Dallas did anything differently against Westbrook, but rather it is that they played him exactly the same as they have all year. They seem to have found the weakness in Westbrook's attack, and you can see it a bit more clearly by looking at his statistics against Dallas this season:

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Statistics provided by Hoopsdata.com

Dallas knows one thing for certain about Westbrook - if he can get to the rim to finish, then he will. They obviously don't want him to do that, but what Dallas is doing is tantalize Russ enough to make him think he can get there, but not actually be able to. And I think that's what the Dallas defense is giving him - a lane to get into the paint, but no lane to get out of it. So he must force shots for which he is not quite prepared.

The missing component in Westbrook's offensive game is in that painted area right in front of the rim. If Westbrook is outside that range, he is more discerning in when he hoists shots. If Westbrook can get to the rim, he almost certainly will. It is when he is forced into that in-between area that Westbrook seems to have the hardest time getting his shots to fall because he never knows quite what to do. He is either leaning forward or away, but never in a natural shooting motion.

If I may speculate, I would probably argue that the reason for the struggle is because Westbrook's shooting mechanics are still very rudimentary. When his form is sound, he has a nice easy elevation to his jump shot and releases on the way up. However, when his mechanics break down, he kind of looks like exploding shrapnel. He has not yet acquired the shooting motion of a Chris Paul, Tony Parker, or Steve Nash, where he can work the ball into that area below the free throw line and toss up the soft jumper or tear-drop. Even worse, it looks like Westbrook isn't even looking for that shot. In going 1-6 from that 3-9 foot area in Game One, often it seemed as if Westbrook was shooting that shot almost as an afterthought, rather than recognizing it for what it is - a high percentage shot close to the rim.

For Game Two, I would hope that:

  1. Westbrook starts to look for that little jumper in the lane, because he'll then shoot it with confidence rather than panic;
  2. The Thunder would better understand what the Mavericks are giving them on defense and devise better passing lanes for Westbrook to kick out the ball if and when the defense collapses.

3. Jason Terry will get his shots.

Terry is a nice combo guard. He has had success both at the 1 and 2 spots and had his fair share of offensive production. To paraphrase Bill Simmons, he's one of the rare players who thinks he is better than he is, but that overconfidence actually makes him a little bit better (kind of like Stephen Jackson). Sometimes he will go for 30, and other times he will miss 75% of his shots and hurt the Mavs. Regardless, two elements remain - 1) he will continue to shoot; 2) most of his shots will be open shots because of the presence of Dirk.

That's all well and good; set that aside.

What the Thunder absolutely cannot let happen again is let Jose Barea shoot 8-12 and get 21 points. The Thunder should not even be allowing him to take 12 shots period. And yet, time after time, he was allowed into the middle of the paint unchallenged. I'm not a proponent of hurting a guy, and the Andrew Bynum method is clearly way out of bounds, but a defensive interior must have more of a physical presence against a guy so small. I don't know if the best answer is to go underneath screens (Barea shot 2-3 from 3-point range) or to switch on him to take the ball out of his hands, but he has clearly become an offensive catalyst for the Mavericks and one that they have come to depend on. He is not super-quick, but he does move with purpose and trusts the Dallas offensive scheme.

In Game Two, I would look for the Thunder to establish much higher pressure on Barea to get the ball out of his hands. If they can do that, then the de facto point person becomes Terry, and Barea's offensive options become extremely limited.

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Keep the faith; OKC is closer than we think, but they must make adjustments to get back in the series. Hopefully it starts tonight.

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