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Oklahoma City Thunder vs Dallas Mavericks: 2011 Conference Finals Game 4 Preview: Mission: Make It Best of 3

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Records: The Dallas Mavericks (57-25) vs The Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27)

Series: Game 1, Game 2, Game 3 (Mavericks lead 2-1)

Time: 8:00 PM Central Daylight Time

Place: Oklahoma City Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma


Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1), ESPN 103.3 KESN-FM

Enemy Blog(s): Mavs Moneyball, The Two Man Game

Tonight, Game Four will tell us where exactly this series is headed. We are collectively sitting on pins and needles waiting to see if tonight's game is the one where the Thunder finally show their youth and inexperience and fold under the pressure. I think it is constructive to look back two weeks, which probably feels like last season by this point. If you remember, the Thunder had just come off of a loss to the Grizzlies in overtime, in a game where they had once held a 16 point first half lead. In the final quarter of that game, the Thunder scored a paltry 10 points, where a mere free throw more would have given them the game. Game Four proved to be the most epic of these playoffs. The Thunder, looking into the eyes of a surging Grizzlies team at home and immediately finding themselves in an 18 point hole, started to figure things out and fought back. The rest of the game wasn't about beautiful basketball, but about finding an answer to keep the team alive. The result was a classic triple-overtime win for the Thunder that probably swung the series.

I don't anticipate nor hope for another overtime marathon that has me looking for the rising sun after its end, but I do think tonight bears the same flavor. The Thunder are clearly frustrated with how they have performed and are searching for answers. What gives me hope is that the one trait they have born through these entire playoffs is the ability to figure things out on the fly. They have done it every step of the way, and so I'm excited to see how they attempt to figure it out once more tonight.

What I'm expecting/hoping:

1. A more patient offensive game.

I highly doubt it was a spoken sentiment heading into Game Three, but the distinct impression that I got in the first quarter was that the Thunder were trying to capitalize on their momentum from Game Two and put the hurt on Dallas early. OKC came out gunning and tried to throw some quick blows to Dallas to get them on their heels. However, Dallas effectively parried or dodged each punch that OKC threw and in turn reversed the fight back onto the Thunder. So instead of the Thunder landing 3-point shots and points at the rim, it was Dallas that was getting open 3-point looks and uncontested lay-ups. The Thunder's frenetic pace backfired on them because they tried to control the tempo with their offense rather than their defense. It probably did not help that the Thunder's opening charge was being parried by a veteran point guard who feasts on teams who overplay his men.

The Thunder need to continue to realize that they do not have to bring an A+ offensive game all the time. Under most circumstances, their B-game is quite sufficient. They don't need to win every quarter by 10, but they cannot continue to lose a quarter by double-digits. The margin for error is simply too small.

2. Better protection of the lane.

In the first quarter, this deficiency manifested itself by way of DeShawn Stevenson and Shawn Marion getting a multitude of open looks at the rim. At least Marion is somewhat defensible since the slashing game is the only thing he really does well, but allowing Stevenson the space to come off of curls and beat men of the drive spoke volumes as to the Thunder's lack of commitment to staying in front of their man early on. The Mavericks shot well over 50% in that first quarter, which fueled their offensive efficiency. It is important to remember though that the high percentage was a direct result of so many of those easy looks at the rim in the early going.

Later in the game, the Thunder were on a mad dash to get back in the game, and they darned near pulled it off. However, it was their inability to protect the rim in terms of rebounding that ultimately doomed the Thunder. My unofficial count was that the Mavericks were able to grab about six of their offensive rebounds in the 4th quarter alone. In a quarter where the Mavs only managed to score 23 points, those additional attempts kept the lead at an eight point level for what seemed like half the quarter. It was truly unfortunate, because until the game turned into a free throw shooting contest, the Thunder defense had held Dallas to 18 points.

3. Better bench play.

The general rule of thumb in the NBA has always been that bench players tend to play better at home than on the road. This rule certainly held true for the Dallas, as their subs shot a poor 10-29 for only 28 points. Unfortunately, the Thunder bench was even worse, shooting 6-16 for 16 points. The real disappointment was in the fact that neither Eric Maynor nor James Harden had the same kind of impact they had in Game Two, when they got to play the entire 4th quarter and won the game for the Thunder.

In Game Three, Maynor played only six minutes and did not record an assist or point. Likewise, Harden could not follow up his strong 23 point performance with the same offensive output or even focus. He, just like Kevin Durant, has a tendency to look for the 3-point shot way too often when he has a skillset that is much more effective at 18 feet and in. We've seen in the past two games that when Harden has Jason Terry on him, Harden has a full realm of options to beat Terry. As I wrote over at Mavs Moneyball, Harden has become an integral part of the Thunder offense. He no longer has the luxury of offering sub-par games in the shadow of the starters. We did not see that present in Game Three, and Harden needs to get back to the slashing game rather than the spot-shooting game.

Given that Dallas relies so heavily on its bench, the Thunder 2nd unit must be ready and willing to generate more offense. This statistic is telling - for all three games thus far, whoever has won the bench play has won the game.

The next biggest test is upon the Thunder. Like all the others, if OKC wants to move on, they have to pass this one first. The clock is ticking.

Prediction: Thunder 95, Dallas 90