Thunder vs Mavericks: Three Lingering Thoughts From Game 1

Apr 28, 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Dallas Mavericks center Ian Mahinmi (28) screens while Dallas Mavericks point guard Jason Kidd (2) drives to the basket against Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) during the first half in game one of the Western Conference quarterfinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Richard Rowe-US PRESSWIRE

The Thunder head into Game 2 tonight with a win under their belts and a series lead (something of which they could not boast a season ago). Before we jump ahead to tonight's game, here are three random musings regarding looking back at game 1.

1. Russell Westbrook's defense.

There are two basic truths about Russell Westbrook when it comes to his defense: 1) the kid is a physical freak who is stronger, quicker, bigger, and can jump higher than most other point guards in the league; and 2) these physical attributes should enable him to be a superb defender, but often he is not.

I am reminded of something Scott Brooks said about his seldom-used reserve Royal Ivey during the regular season:

"Royal doesn’t allow himself to get screened...You have a choice every time. Defensively, it’s to either get screened or don’t get screened and he makes the right choice by not getting screened."

Too often this season, Westbrook has allowed himself to get 'screened.' Instead of seeing the screens as they come and figuring out a way to not be hindered by them, we would see him go underneath or even worse, over the top. The result was that he'd be wildly out of position and players not as talented as he would have huge games. As the point man for the defensive attack, it is incumbent on Westbrook more than anyone else not to get pulled out of position. This truth is doubly so in facing Jason Kidd passing the ball or Jason Terry shooting the ball.

We know that Dallas loves to run the 2-man game with Dirk and Terry when things matter most. They run all sorts of screens, hand-offs, rubs, and the like with each other when the team absolutely has to get clean looks at the basket. Up to the 4th quarter, Terry was the most important offensive catalyst; he was shooting 8-9 at that point and hit a number of huge 3-pointers that helped hold off the Thunder, and what was worse, OKC had shown no signs of slowing him down. Permitting Terry to run unhindered and work with Dirk in the clutch would likely cost the Thunder in the end.

Jason Terry shot 0-1 in the 4th quarter and scored zero points.

Why?

"The adjustment they made was they put Westbrook on me, that's all." - Jason Terry

Really?

"We’ve gotta find a way to get JET the ball. I think he had the hot hand and we couldn’t even get him the ball in the fourth quarter. They denied him everywhere. We’ve got to counter that. Russell [Westbrook] met him all the way out to halfcourt – we couldn’t hand him the ball the ball off, so you’ve really got to give them credit. I hate to waste a game by JET like that. He was on fire." - Dirk Nowitzki

(emphasis mine)

Remarkable, isn't it? Don't get screened. The Mavs were going to win Game 1 in part because the Thunder could not shut down Terry, but then Westbrook made a choice, and his choice was to take Terry out of the equation. For all of Russ' wonderful offensive contributions in the first three quarters (and make no mistake, Westbrook carried the team while Durant struggled), it would have been for naught had Westbrook not made the decision to eliminate Terry as an offensive option.

Courtesy the great site Hickory High, here is one example of how well Westbrook understood and executed his mandate:


This is what Westbrook can do. How (and whether) the Mavericks can counter Westbrook's defense is going to go a long ways to determining if Dallas can generate enough offense to hang with the Thunder.

2. Dallas rides the wave.

When a team like Dallas has to face a team like the Thunder, a team that clearly has greater offensive talent at more positions, the challenge is how to minimize their scoring opportunities while maximizing Dallas' own. Perhaps a scoring battle between Durant-Westbrook-Harden-Ibaka vs Nowitzki-Terry-Marion-Carter is a little unfair, but what if it is just Durant-Westbrook vs Nowizki-Terry? Dallas, being the older and less athletic veteran team, has to find ways to make it a two-on-two star match-up instead of a four-on-four match-up. They do this by making the game smaller, by understanding that an NBA playoff game is often decided in several small moments. When one team surges, the game turns on whether or not the opposing team can match that surge. It is kind of like a surfer riding a wave; he stays with the wave until the precise moment when it comes time to attack the wave, and then all sorts of crazy-fantastic things happen.

For the majority of Game 1, the Mavericks offense rode the wave and then waited for the Thunder surges to come. What was remarkable was how the Mavs were able to read these surges almost perfectly; OKC would make a run and Dallas would immediately counter with a heightened sense of focus on both ends of the court. The net result was a frustrating repetition where OKC seemed like they could never quite get over the 'hump.' Here are the surges and the counter:

2nd Quarter

  • Beginning the 2nd down four, the Thunder score the first five points of the quarter to take a quick lead. Dallas responds with nine straight points off of 4-4 shooting while forcing the Thunder into two turnovers and a missed 3-pointer. In two minutes Dallas went from one down to up by eight.
  • 2:10 in the 2nd, Kevin Durant scores an and-1 to bring the Thunder within two. Dallas responds by scoring on five consecutive possessions to push the lead back up to six with under a minute to go.
3rd Quarter
  • OKC takes a two point lead 66-64 with 3:36 to go in the quarter. Dallas responds by holding OKC scoreless for the next three minutes, while Jason Terry hits another dagger 3-pointer and the Mavs add a few free throws. Dallas regains control, going back up by five.
4th Quarter
  • OKC pulls to within a point, 85-84, with under five minutes to play. Here comes Dirk. The Finals MVP responds to the Thunder's seemingly last big run by scoring seven points over the next two minutes. When Dirk hits a jumper with 2:31 to play, pushing the lead to seven, it appears that Dallas held off the Thunder one last time to earn the upset win.
In all, it was a remarkable bit of reading the 'breaks' of the game by Dallas, who was always ready to turn back OKC when the Thunder had momentum building. I have to think that if the game lasted another two minutes, Dallas probably would have pushed them back again.

3. James Harden is back.

After suffering a concussion at the hands and elbow of Metta World Peace, we didn't know what to expect when Harden returned to action. We knew that he was cleared to play and felt good, but it is impossible to tell how a player is going to react mentally when the ball is in play.

Thankfully for Thunder fans, Harden appears to be 100% good to go. From the moment he checked in and received a massive ovation from the Thunder faithful, Harden resumed his game as if nothing had happened. Nineteen points off of seven shots? There you go. 9-10 from the free throw line? That's the way it is done. Six rebounds, three assists, and a critical steal late in the game off of Dirk? It's winning time.

Harden was a big reason why the Thunder won Game 2 against the Mavericks in last season's playoffs, and it was clear Saturday night that Dallas does not have an easy solution for defending Harden. He's too big, strong, and smart to be checked one-on-one. To be sure, the Mavs have Shawn Marion at their disposal, but as their best defender he can only guard one guy, and Kevin Durant has to be that guy that Marion guards. With Marion occupied, the Thunder will have all sorts of mismatch advantages with Harden and Westbrook running free. As long as they can play a bit smarter when old man Jason Kidd is in the game (seven steals!), Dallas is going to have a very difficult time solving the Thunder offense.

***

On to Game 2!

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