Last night's game was important. It was important, not solely because the Thunder had dropped two straight, not simply because the Mavericks are ahead of them in the standings, and not because it was a road win. All of these things are significant, I agree; but to me, the most important aspect of this win is that the Thunder were approaching a breaking point psychologically as to whether they could defeat the Mavericks at all.
Funny thing, psychology is. It can allow one team to own another team under virtually any circumstance. Once the idea of defeat settles in to the struggling opponent, it is very difficult to shake off.
In game 1, the teams both played at full strength and evenly until the middle of the 4th, when Dirk Nowitzki took over and the Thunder succumbed to the Mavs' offensive pressure, losing by eight.
In game 2, Nowitzki was injured early on, and though unfortunate, it still presented an opportunity for the Thunder to even the season series now that the Mavs were missing their primary scoring option. Once again, the two teams played evenly up until the middle of the 4th quarter, when the Thunder once again fell apart offensively. The Mavs closed them out, holding the Thunder to 12 4th quarter points. The result, sans Dirk, was a 10 point loss.
And now, in game 3, Dirk was still missing and the Mavs suddenly found themselves without 19 ppg scorer Caron Butler for the rest of the season. The Mavs were without close to 45 points of offense and 2/5 of their starting line-up. Despite these advantages, the Thunder once again fell behind early, giving up 31 1st quarter points and a four point half-time deficit.
The suffocating tidal wave of self-doubt was about to test the Thunder's quality.
The Thunder HAD to win this game. They could not surrender a 3rd consecutive loss to a team missing so much, in a game that could all but seal the Thunder's fate as not being mentally strong enough to compete with the elites of the league.
The Thunder responded valiantly.
The team responded with an elevated intensity in their defensive focus, and a greater patience on offense. They turned a four point halftime deficit into a three point lead heading into the 4th. The Mavs simply did not have enough offense to keep up with the Thunder, but instead of simply trying to out-gun the undermanned Mavs, instead the Thunder took away the few things that the Mavs DID have working. Shawn Marion, who had killed the Thunder in the 1st half with 21 points, finished with 25. The only other offensively competent player on the team, Jason Terry, could not repeat his game 2 success.
The Thunder pulled ahead by double digits mid-way through the 4th, and then endured six long minutes of keeping the Mavs at arm's length. Aside from their defensive intensity, I enjoyed this last sequence the most. They did not give in to the Mavs' tactics to try and get back in the game; the lead stayed right where it was. The Thunder executed, committed only one real turnover, and held on for what should have been a double-digit win. It was only by a flurry of late DeShawn Stevenson threes that brought the Mavs as close as they were.
The Thunder needed this game as much for their own psyche as well as their record. Well done.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, who once again played well in the post, taking advantage of the Mavericks' lack of size down low.
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, who, despite fouling out, collected 13 points, 8 rebounds (5 offensive), and a block in only 25 minutes of play.
Thunder Blunder: Durant's mistaking the end of the game was over when he handed the ball to Mavs coach Rick Carlisle. More on this later.
Thunder Plunderer: Tyson Chandler, who once again dominated the Thunder inside, collecting 18 rebounds, 6 offensive.
Next game: vs Memphis Grizzlies, Saturday January 8, at Ford Center, 7PM CST