What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
OKC didn't climb over a big hurdle tonight. It was not a playoff game, there wasn't an inordinate amount riding on the outcome, and the Thunder did not play dominant basketball. They did not take a huge step forward, because we once again saw a number of poor tendencies that almost derailed them.
But it was a small hurdle.
The Thunder played poor offensive basketball most of the night, and that was frustrating to watch. HOWEVER...they also played some basketball that enabled them to stay in a game where they were getting outplayed on both ends of the court. The second quarter in particular was difficult to watch, as the Thunder offense struggled while the Dallas offense scored 29 points to give them a seven point lead at the half. Now we know that the Thunder respond well to adversity coming out of the halftime break, so the 3rd quarter was not a surprise. OKC buckled down, focused, and turned out a great quarter that should have put them in the driver's seat.
Unfortunately, as the final quarter unfolded we began to see a lot of the bad habits that railroaded the Thunder in the playoffs last season. There were rushed shots, turnovers, an over-reliance on the 3-point shot, and neither Kevin Durant not Russell Westbrook solved the Maverick defense in a way where they could score consistently.
Thank goodness they still had their 3rd scorer, James Harden. Harden, after struggling through three quarters, went to work in the 4th doing the exact kind of thing that makes him so notable - he manufactures points in the most efficient way possible. In all, Harden scored 14 points off of only three shot attempts. In a word, Harden exemplified precisely the kind of basketball a team must play in a pressure playoff situation when nothing else is working, and he did it again and again. Because of his play, the thunder were able to withstand Dallas' last late push and come away with the win.
A small hurdle, but a cleared hurdle, none-the-less.
What was, overall, the main reason the Thunder won?
What can a team do when its two offensive spark plugs are struggling? You know the answer - play good defense and rebound.
On the rebounding front, after Dallas enjoyed a slight edge in the 1st half, the Thunder grew stronger on the boards as the game went on and seldom did Dallas get more than one shot attempt per possession. Led by Kendrick Perkins' 14 rebounds (5 offensive), the Thunder outrebounded the Mavs 46-35 overall and 14-9 on the offensive glass. While the Thunder fast break never really got going due to Dallas' strong ability to play transition defense, the rebounding work played a significant role in enabling the Thunder defense to be rewarded for hard-fought defensive sequences by not giving the Mavs additional opportunities.
After allowing the Mavericks to score 52 points in the 1st half and shoot over 50%, the defense locked in, took away a lot of the passing lanes, and held the Mavs to only 39 points in the second half. In particular, the Thunder gained the competitive edge in the game by holding Dallas to a remarkable 13 points in the 3rd. The Thunder were dominated by Dallas inside the paint early, with reserve center Ian Mahinmi getting 13 points in the paint in the 1st half, but as the 2nd half wore on, the scoring opportunities for Dallas were greatly reduced.
More importantly, after the Thunder surrendered the lead midway through the 4th, the defense began to re-exert itself. By way of three Dirk Nowizki clutch 3-pointers, the Mavericks took a four point lead with under three minutes to go at 91-87. From that point on, the Mavericks did not score again. Over the final 2 minutes and 46 seconds, the Thunder forced two turnovers (one of which was a 24 second violation) and four missed perimeter shots. The Thunder defense switched on everything, never gave Dirk a clean look again, and forced Terry into low percentage shots that he did not convert.
What is a key statistic to understanding tonight's game?
If the Thunder had lost I would go with the fact that the duo of Westbrook and Durant shot a combined 3-12 from 3-point range a game aver combining for 6-18 in the loss to the Hawks. It is not that I have a problem with either of them taking open 3-pointers, but the issue is that they are primary usage players, so if they are taking a high number of this type of shot, they are effectively turning themselves into Daequan Cook. This is nothing against Cook, but OKC already has a Daequan Cook; they don't need two more. These two need to recognize better that their playmaking potential is maximized by playing a more dynamic role, which means doing things like getting into the lane, taking higher percentage shots, and being in a position where they can generate assists for others.
Instead though I will go with the Thunder's free throw shooting, which really won the game for them offensively. To be sure they were recipients of some home-town foul calls that sent them to the line, but this is the type of offensive assertiveness a team has to have when the ball isn't going through the hoop any other way. In total, the team shot 29-33 from the stripe, including 14-15 in the 4th alone. Durant went 9-10, Westbrook went 10-12, and Harden went 7-7.
What does this game mean for the Thunder today and moving forward?
The Thunder finished up their regular season series with this win, taking the series 3-1. This game revealed a lot of tendencies that the Thunder still struggle with though, and Dallas still knows how to capitalize on them. If I am honest, I would still say that if the Thunder were to meet the Mavs in the playoffs, I would still give a slight edge to Dallas (not to mention it terrifies me that there is a decent likelihood that these two teams could meet in the 1st round). Dallas still plays a very smart game, they game-plan well against the opposition, they have an exceptional coach in Rick Carlisle, and they know how to defend both Durant and Westbrook.
Durant seems to have hit a mini-slide, and he would do well to simplify his game a bit against Phoenix and try to work within the parameters of the post instead of trying to penetrate the lane all the time. Teams have gotten wise to his dribble-drive, and he is getting his pocket picked every single game when he tries to drive down the lane. Yes, it is a smaller part of the bigger turnover problem, but little things do add up. If Durant can play a smarter offensive game, it should do wonders to both his and the team's overall sense of purpose in scoring early and often.
Thunder Wonder: James Harden, 16 points, 4 assists, 14 of team's final 27 points
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka, 8 points, 7 rebounds, 6 blocks, 2 ultra-clutch free throws that gave OKC the lead in the 4th
Thunder Blunder: Kevin Durant, 22 points on only 6-18 shooting, 1-6 from 3-point range, 7 turnovers
Thunder Plunderer: Dirk Nowitzki, 27 points, 5 rebounds
Next Game: vs Phoenix Suns, Wednesday, March 7, 7:00 PM Central Standard Time