Dallas Mavericks 93, Oklahoma City Thunder, 87: 2011 Western Conference Finals Game Three; Best to Look Away

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A funny thing happened on my way to writing off Game Three as an anomaly. 

You see, there are so many NBA games that have drifted through my noggin, that watching the opening first half of tonight's game barely generated a rise from me. Oh for sure, it was not fun to watch. a 35-12 deficit through 14 minutes of play is quite the visceral experience. I've seen this before. And what it means simply is this - sometimes, one team makes everything it throws up while at the same time the other team can't throw the ball into the ocean. It happens. It has happened before and it will happen again. Sometimes it happens during a meaningless pre-season game, and other times it happens in the Conference Finals. A team just needs to accept it, even if it is a costly loss, and move on.

The narrative would have been so simple. The Dallas Mavericks came out with a great game plan in place, worked the ball efficiently, relied on Jason Kidd's offensive initiative, and drowned the Thunder before they knew what had hit them. Then Dallas expanded the lead, weathered a few storms, and held a comfortable 16 point lead at the half. Meanwhile, OKC continued to play as if their shoes were tied together, missed easy shots, missed open shots, made bad passes, committed silly turnovers, and looked like a lottery team.

Could we have not just left it there?

Well, we couldn't, because 1) this is the NBA, and huge point swings are always possible; and 2) this is the Thunder. It is against their nature to pack it in. 

So we as the fans get caught in that self-defeating middle - we knew that the Thunder would probably lose, but they kept it so tantalizingly close that we held out hope. As they say, hope is a dangerous thing, because it possesses the ability to set us up for failure, and then we're both disappointed and ticked off at ourselves for holding out such hope.

So it was Saturday night.

For our/my own sanity's sake, let's put aside the actual outcome and consider some of the positives and negatives. Despite the loss, we don't want the lessons to go to waste.

Positives

  • After a disastrous 1st quarter, the Thunder, despite having no offensive rhythm to speak of, actually outscored the Mavericks by nine. That's right, if the Thunder had only lost the 1st quarter by eight, they would have actually won this monstrosity. 
  • All told, the defense played well. In the 1st quarter, the Mavs were shooting well over 50%, in large part due to some deft passing and ball rotation which gave Deshawn Stevenson and Shawn Marion open shots at the rim. Yes, the Mavs did hit some jumpers and 3-pointers to give them the lead, but by and large their offensive momentum came from their excellent passing and shots in close.
  • Despite the game seeming like a long, drawn out blow-out, the Mavs still only scored 93 points, which makes this the second consecutive game where the Mavs' offensive output has drastically shrank.
  • The biggest highlight of that defense was in the 3rd quarter, where the Thunder held the Mavs to a mere 18 points on 6-22 shooting. Despite seeing the Mavs' lead balloon to 20 to start things off, the Thunder never gave up the chase and kept the pressure on.
  • Nick Collison continued to play Dirk Nowitzki extremely well. While Dirk did a great job fighting through his shooting struggles to help put the game away, it was clear that he was not comfortable with the way his offense was working, and that was in big part due to Collison. Collison continued to body up against Dirk extremely well, and the perfect example of Collison's body control in dealing with Dirk came in the 4th when Nick forced a jump ball merely by having exceptional defensive position.
  • Russell Westbrook did not let the whole Game Two hullabaloo effect him. Westbrook continued to attack the rim and was the primary man responsible for making the game competitive.
  • You've probably noticed that most of these positives have to do with defense. That in itself is a great thing, because it means that the Thunder have learned that regardless of whether shots are falling, they can always be confident that they have the ability to play great defense.
Negatives
  • We could just say, "the offense" and know that the analysis is practically complete.
  • If you're looking for more depth though, let us again put aside the 1st quarter. It was an anomaly. Nobody at all was making shots, be they open or contested. It happens. I think though it is more instructive to look at the offense in the 2nd half, which is where the game really became a disappointment because of so many missed opportunities. The Thunder should not have been in this game, but they were, due in large part to their commitment to play great defense. Their D gave the O a chance to come back.
  • The huge missed opportunity really was in the 3rd quarter. The Thunder, revitalized and looking to attack, held the Mavs to only 18 points. It was a prime opportunity to completely reverse the course of the game. And yet, the Thunder could not take advantage. They only managed to score 20, shaving a mere two points off the lead, which left them with a 14 point deficit heading into the 4th. There were so many open shot opportunities the Thunder had, and they just kept missing. If OKC had only made three more shots in that quarter, to win it 26-18, they would have entered the 4th being down by 10. 
  • One particular moment that was emblematic involved Serge Ibaka. Ibaka had received the ball in the wing and had a clear path to the rim. However, for some reason I'll never understand, Air Congo, the man who was in the slam dunk competition, tried to go for a soft lay-in instead of dunking the basketball, completely air-balling the attempt. He then got his own rebound, but again missed the put-back.
  • The 3-point shooting deserves its own bullet-point. Up until 35 seconds were left in the game, OKC was shooting 0-16 from behind the arc. Many of them were open, but most of them were not close. It did not matter if it was Kevin Durant, Daequan Cook, Russell Westbrook, or James Harden; nobody looked good shooting from long range. And here is where my personal bias kicks in - a team and a coach has to have a self-awareness when something isn't working, and then stop doing it. OKC was going for three's in just about every big moment - to cut the lead to under 10 or to reduce the lead to a single possession, and every time they missed. Most of the time those threes came early in the shot clock. I know that Durant has said that the 3-pointer is a big part of his game and that he has to keep taking it if it's open, but I've seen too many of his games where he misses more than five, and I just have to disagree. It is not the 3-pointer that is a big part of Durant's game, but rather it is taking the 3-pointer that is a big part of his game. If Durant stopped shooting it, it would no longer be a critical part of his game. He has proven in this series that he can murder the Mavs from inside 15 feet, and yet Durant continued to  fire away, missing eight in all.
  • In a way, this game was like Game Three against the Grizzlies, but in reverse. In that previous game, the Thunder started off hot and then fell apart in the second half. However, the same fact is true for both - if their awful quarter had merely been "mediocre," then the Thunder probably would have won. 
We don't need to lose hope. What we've seen in the past two games is not a fluke - the Thunder are defending the Mavericks very well and can rest on that. However, in this Game three they allowed themselves to be taken out early and could not collect themselves off the mat completely to finish the game competently. The pressure now mounts, as OKC must find a way to head back to Dallas with an even series, and not the risk of facing their first close-out game.

***

Thunder Wonder: Russell Westbrook, 30 Points, 4 Assists,2 Steals

Thunder Down Under: Nick Collison, 9 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 blocks, solid defense against Dirk once more

Thunder Blunder: Kevin Durant - 7-22 shooting, 0-8 from 3-point range

Thunder Plunderer: Shawn Marion, 18 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 blocks

Next Game: Game 3 vs the Dallas Mavericks, Monday, May 23th, 8 PM Central Standard Time.

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