Is it the playoffs?
No? Okay. But man, this was as close to a playoff atmosphere as you're going to get. When O.J. Mayo was taking three free throws deep into overtime, the crowd's roar was impenetrable. I couldn't imagine trying to shoot in that situation. I have a feeling the sound waves alone could send the ball to Timbuktu if you weren't careful.
Anyway, I think that there's some cosmic force keeping these two teams at a similar level when they step on the floor together. Despite Dallas being in a rut and Dirk Nowitzki being little help, they managed to hold a solid lead the entire game and force the Thunder to overtime.
Here's the part where we look at what went wrong, and my immediate reaction is to look at Russell Westbrook. His defense was atrocious, often grabbing the wrong guy and giving Darren Collison easy mismatches to exploit. His offense was more forced stop and pop jumpers, along with his now trademark missed open layups. If someone made a video of Westbrook missing open layups, I think it would become an instant viral hit. But I've talked about Westbrook and his problems ad nauseum. The big takeaway from this game was his intense amount of effort. Somehow, he managed to have 8 of the team's 13 overtime points after going 4-16 from the floor during regulation.
All of those overtime scores were perfect, perfect examples of how Westbrook can be effective. Play 1, he hands the ball off to Sefolosha, uses Marion as an unwitting screen, and gets a wide open layup. Great off-ball movement. Play 2, he does a quick back and forth in order to get a mismatch against Dirk Nowitzki. Easy pull up for an open jumper, automatic 2 points. Play 3, he intercepts a pass and scores in transition. Here, he hit an open layup. If he could attempt just three of each of these plays every single game, I guarantee you he'd be shooting over 50%.
But the real story of this game should be that of Kevin Durant. As the man who sits in front of me remarked, he had 40 of the quietest points ever. He wasn't acting as Mr. Fourth Quarter tonight, scoring points when the Thunder needed them most. Rather, he was scoring efficiently throughout his time on the floor, and had a couple of highlight jams as well. He was able to get mismatches and use picks effectively to get to the rack. Shawn Marion was basically AWOL as a defender, only making Durant miss a couple of times. It's true that Kevin Durant failed a bit in overtime, but with how well he carried the team during regulation, it's easy to forgive him.
Overall, I really felt like Rick Carlisle did an excellent job of managing the game. Any time the Thunder would get a slight run, he'd call a timeout and re-work his strategy. He made some great matchup pairings, like playing Kaman primarily against Kendrick Perkins, which netted him some easy points. At the end of the game, he did what he could to stem the Thunder's tide, making constant substitutions and throwing out new strategies as to how the team would score.
But really, the Mavericks got to overtime on a large, heaping plate of luck. The Thunder basically stole the inbounds play, and an unlucky bounce sent the ball back into Marions hands. He made a awesome veteran move and dished the ball to an open Collison, but really, 9 times out of 10 that game would have gone to the Thunder.
You could point to OJ Mayo as another reason for their loss. After getting blocked by Durant in the first quarter, he was totally quiet for the rest of the night, only surfacing to brick a couple of isolation jumpers and nail an open three. It really puzzles me, then, as to why he took two threes in overtime. Moreover, his ball-handling ability was downright terrible, losing the ball three times and throwing the ball out of bounds to nobody twice in regulation. So isolating him at the top of the key was just senseless, and led to another silly turnover.
Getting back to the Thunder, I think it's really hard to ignore Serge Ibaka's contribution to this game. His performance definitely didn't pop out at you while you were watching it, but when you go back and look at him in particular, the writing is on the wall. He got two key blocks in overtime, one on Kaman in the post and one on Jones during a drive. One of those blocks might have been a foul, but the ref didn't call it, so meh. He was quiet offensively for most of the game, but he was the only person scoring consistent points in the first quarter, when the Thunder were really struggling. Moreover, his huge amount of rebounds really helped the Thunder control the ball and get second chances on what was a really poor shooting night. His two offensive boards at the end of regulation were absolutely crucial. It's hard to say what was different about how he played tonight, but having his athleticism and sense about when to jump for the board is a huge, huge help. When you get down to it, Ibaka pretty much won us this game.
Reggie Jackson did an okay job as backup point guard tonight, providing a lot of hustle and a smidgen of offense. His decision-making wasn't as good as Eric Maynor's, but he held Dominique Jones to a low percentage. The big talking point, really, was his terrible shot selection. It's clear that he still has that scorer/s mentality from when he was the man at Boston College. But the shots he's attempting just won't work for him in the NBA. He likes to dribble into mid-range, push off his defender or back into his defender, and throw up a shot. Often, this shot is an ugly, ugly brick. But even when left open for things like corner threes, he's liable to miss those shots as well. There was one particularly hilarious play where he airballed a corner three over the rim, and the ball went straight into the hands of Thabeet. Thabeet immediately proceeded to fumble it out of bounds. It was a perfect example of the two biggest holes in both of those player's games. Still, Jackson nailed two clutch threes when the Thunder needed it the most, so I absolve him of most blame.
There's other names I could go through. Kevin Martin served up his usual scoring platter, complete with a clutch three in overtime. He even got a steal early in the game, which was rather unusual for him. Thabo Sefolosha made the Mavs pay for shooting open threes. Thabeet and Collison were okay. And Kendrick Perkins, despite getting owned in the paint, put up a decent performance tonight. His rebounds were important, and his 0-6 shooting was really unlucky. Two of his shots were followed up by Ibaka, and he had great post positioning on the other four. Probably should have gotten a few foul calls, but oh well.
Anyway, it's nice to finally be back in the winning column. The Thunder head to Houston on Saturday to try to defeat old ghosts and re-claim the Western Conference crown.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, the full-game action.
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, who's more clutch than you think.
Thunder Blunder: Kendrick Perkins, for defensive failings.
Thunder Plunderer: Darren Collison, who needed more shots in overtime.
Next Game: At the Houston Rockets, Saturday, December 29th, 7 PM Central Standard Time.