Sometimes in the NBA a team comes out much more ready to play than its opponent and rides that activity level to a victory. That was exactly the case in the Dallas Mavericks’ 93-87 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game One.
After fantastic offensive performances in Dallas, the Thunder seemed lethargic at the onset. Screens were more perfunctory than purposeful. Cuts were non-existent. Meaningful weak side action was seldom run. Players settled for contested jumpers. By the time the Thunder woke up, they were down 23 points.
Meanwhile, the Mavericks played spirited defense at the onset.
- Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, and DeShawn Stevenson each took turns defending Kevin Durant early. Their physicality forced Durant to catch the ball farther out than he would optimally want, and Stevenson and Marion used their length to eliminate entry passes. Later in the game Tyson Chandler would take a few turns defending Durant to a positive effect.
- Dallas shows on screens were excellent, with even Dirk Nowitzki hedging perfectly and delaying the ball handler on screen/rolls.
- The Mavs scouted and had their help defenders chuck Durant when he cut along the baseline from one side of the floor to the other.
- Dallas’ help defense was active, always providing assistance on drives to the basket.
- After James Harden blitzed the Mavs in Game Two, Rick Carlisle adjusted and gave Jason Terry help by trapping Harden’s screen/rolls.
- Dallas attacked Durant’s defense with Marion early, and it appeared to discourage Durant.
- The Mavs pounced on any faulty pass or dribble, coming up with five steals in the first quarter.
- With Dallas’ defense creating turnovers, the Mavs were able to fuel their transition game. This allowed Marion to get going early, and discouraged the Thunder.
Of course, many of the Thunder’s problems were self-induced.
- The dirty secret of the Jeff Green-Kendrick Perkins trade is that Perkins has been a dud in the playoffs. His rotations were frequently late or absent, his passing was abysmal, he takes too long to gather himself at the basket, and too often he found himself trying to tip out rebounds rather than securing them, leading to extra Mavs possessions.
- When Durant is faced with aggressive ball denial, he’s not strong enough to shed the defender. Against the Grizzlies, the Thunder countered this by having Durant screen the ball and fan, but the Mavericks aren’t coming off Durant’s body to hedge on the screen the way the Grizzlies did. Instead the Mavs are switching the screens because they’re comfortable with Stevenson or Kidd checking Durant.
- Durant also missed several shots from in close where he doesn’t have the body to ward off Tyson Chandler’s physical length.
- Russell Westbrook committed four acts unbecoming of a point guard in the opening frame. He forced a drive into traffic and was stripped for a turnover, he forced an early offense jumper that clanged out, he pushed off on Stevenson on a stepback attempt for another offensive foul, and he missed a layup.
- Westbrook also committed faulty closeouts, seemed unawares as to how to fight through a screen, and put no pressure on Jason Kidd while setting up the offense.
- Finally, Scott Brooks deserves some of the blame. His offense has virtually no continuity, so once a primary option is taken away, it’s up to the players to make offense appear out of nothing.
This is disappointing, because once the Thunder picked up their effort, they had some success.
The Thunder successfully crowded Nowitzki on his isolations, fronted his post ups, and closed out hard on his catch-and-shoots. The Thunder also elected to two-time Dirk from the baseline. As a result, Dirk had a rough second half.
Serge Ibaka used his length to contest Dirk’s jumpers, forcing Dirk to miss all three of his isolations against him.
Nick Collison’s strong upper body and relative quickness prevented Dirk from getting separation. Collison bodied Dirk into shooting only 2-5 against him (with a pair of blocked shots), plus Collison’s ferocious hands wrenched the ball from Dirk twice, leading to three turnovers. Dirk also failed to seal Westbrook on a post up, meaning Dirk’s one-on-one ventures in the first quarter only generated four points in 12 possessions, an exceptional ratio.
Dirk also was blocked on a roll to the basket, and shot 3-7 on various catch-and-shoots, usually after setting a screen then fading, to create open space. For the most part though, Dirk was a non-factor.
Likewise, Jason Terry couldn’t find the range—3-12 FG—but he kept his forced shots to a minimum, moved the ball, and hit a big floater late. On the defensive end, he was better at staying attached to James Harden’s body on screen/rolls, and funneled him into help. Considering how Dirk struggled though, Terry’s poor performance was another win for the Thunder.
Westbrook continued to knock down his screen/roll jumpers and abused J.J. Barea in the fourth quarter. It should also be noted that on Westbrook’s assaults, Chandler was usually able to provide effective help and meet Westbrook above the lane, while Brendan Haywood’s help was often a step late.
However, despite these successes, the Thunder couldn’t completely overcome the huge deficit they set for themselves allowing the Mavs to hang on for the win.
What do they need to do differently to capture Game Four?
- Get more continuity in their offense. Since Westbrook has so much trouble making the appropriate trigger passes, how about the Thunder run some 1-2-2 sets in the first quarter where Westbrook brings the ball up, makes an entry pass to Ibaka, and cuts through to the corner to effectively set a double screen or a split cut with Durant? This gives Durant some options to come to the ball, generates weak side action, and puts Westbrook along the baseline where he’s effective as a cutter. Oklahoma City can still run some continuity bringing Westbrook back around to post up or screen/roll.
- Kendrick Perkins has to be given a shorter leash if he’s not going to play with maximum effort. It’s a risk giving extra minutes to Nick Collison because the foul trouble he could be placed in, but against Haywood and the Mavericks bench, how about giving Nazr Mohammed and his short range jumper some time?
- If not Mohammed stealing some minutes from Perkins, the Thunder need to play small to create spacing for entry passes to Durant.
- Putting James Harden in screen/rolls puts the ball in the hands of Oklahoma City’s best playmaker.
- Keep crowding Dirk and hope the refs hold their whistles.
- Most importantly, come out with full energy right from the onset to put the Mavs on their heels and not the other way around.
As for the Mavs, they can take solace in winning a road game in which its two best scorers didn’t play particularly well—a testament to the team’s defensive fortitude and maturity. A similar defensive performance in Game Four will have them in the lookout seat with the NBA Finals coming in to view over the horizon.