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The Russell Westbrook drama throughout the playoffs has overshadowed the development of James Harden, who is not only becoming a star, but one who offers the perfect fit alongside the talents of Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Never was this more clear than in the Thunder's Game 2 win over the Dallas Mavericks.
Kevin Durant and James Harden dominated for the OKC Thunder in their Game 2 win over the Dallas Mavericks, and it happened with Russell Westbrook on the bench. Coincidence? Maybe not.
Much is being made of Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks' decision to bench All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook in the fourth quarter of the team's Game 2 win over the Dallas Mavericks. Lost in the drama of the Westbrook controversy is the fact that the reason Brooks can make that call and come away with a win is because Eric Maynor, the team's back-up point guard, is exceptional in his role.
Maynor is one of the better back-up point guard's in the league; in this series, more attention was paid to super-scorer J.J. Barea of Dallas, owing to the diminutive Puerto Rican's 21-point Game 1 outburst. But Maynor is a more traditional point guard, a playmaker and floor general who offers depth at a crucial position, depth most teams wish for.
It's interesting, because coming out of Virginia Commonwealth two years ago, Maynor was pegged as a combo guard scoring machine who'd have trouble fitting himself into a role; since coming over to the Thunder from the Utah Jazz in 2010 -- the Jazz needed to dump Matt Harpring's salary to escape the luxury tax, and Maynor was the sweetener -- he's been a dependable, consistent bench player for Brooks.
Until Westbrook gets his floor leadership to a point where the Thunder can't live without it, Brooks is going to have the option of turning to Maynor to run the team. That's both an incentive to Russ and a nice reality in the interim.
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Dirk Nowitzki famously hit 24 of 24 free throws in the Dallas Mavericks' Western Conference Finals Game 1 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. He had a really nice streak going into the final minute of Game 2, with the Mavericks trailing. Nowitzki hadn't missed from the stripe since Game 2 of the Mavericks' series against the Los Angeles Lakers.
With the Mavericks trailing 104-98, Nowitzki goaded Nick Collison into a foul on a three-point attempt with 36 seconds left; it was one of those "take contact and heave" deals. Nowitzki had at that point hit 38 consecutive free throws: seven in the Lakers' series, 24 in Game 1 and seven in Game 2. If he hit all three of these, he'd make it a one-possession game.
He hit the first but rimmed out the second before making the third; the scored was 104-100, leaving Dallas in a tough spot. Rick Carlisle elected not to foul on the ensuing Thunder possession, but Dallas pressure forced a 24-second violation. Dallas couldn't convert its final three-point attempts; maybe the Mavericks would have failed if they needed one for the tie instead of two scores. But having that three-point margin definitely would be have been nice.
You can't fault Nowitzki -- he very clearly has the resolve to handle business in crunch time. Basketball works in odd ways, and no streak lasts forever. Too bad it ended when it did.
Though the Oklahoma City Thunder were able to knot the Western Conference Finals at one game apiece on Thursday with a 106-100 win over the Dallas Mavericks, a curious decision by head coach Scott Brooks raised plenty of eyebrows. Brooks drastically altered his late-game rotation, benching most of the starters, including Russell Westbrook, for the fourth quarter. With Kevin Durant leading the way and Westbrook on the bench, the Thunder were able to pull-away and tie the series up.
After the game, Scott Brooks said he simply stuck with the hot hand to close the game. The reserves were doing a great job on both ends of the floor, so Brooks kept Westbrook and the rest of the starters, sans Kevin Durant, on the bench.
"Sticking with Eric over Russell ... I thought Eric did a good job. I've done it a few times this year. We weren't getting a lot of things done. And this time coming out I stayed with Eric. Eric was terrific handling the decisions on the court"
Durant followed Brooks' lead, noting the decision had nothing to do with Westbrook and everything to do with the play of the reserves in the fourth quarter. The team had chemistry at the time and it showed in their play.
"We had a good start to the fourth quarter and we had a good lead. We were playing good defense and you can't mess that chemistry up. Coach made a good decision. They really won the game for us. It was a big effort"
He also went out of his way to praise Westbrook for his efforts. Throughout the playoffs, Westbrook has been criticized for his inconsistent, and sometimes selfish, play, leading some to wonder whether his benching was an attempt by Brooks to send a message.
"I don't think he struggled tonight. We went with a different lineup in the fourth," Durant said, referring to Westbrook. "It was just the way the game was going. Eric had our group going. We were playing in sync. Russell understands that. He's the perfect teammate. For a leader, that's what you like to see on the bench."
In the end, all that mattered was the win. Oklahoma City evened the series at one and stole a win in Dallas. If Westbrook was unhappy, it didn't show in his postgame comments.
"Not when we’re winning. I’m good," Westbrook said when asked if the move bothered him. "I know you all want to ask the same question and I'm going to give you all the same answer: We were winning."
Only time will tell if Westbrook's fourth quarter benching was a big deal, but it's a storyline that will likely be analyzed until the Thunder take the floor again on Saturday in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. On Thursday night, the parties involved were saying the right things, but it's anyone's guess what the long-term affect the benching had on Westbrook may be, if anything. In the short-term, though, Brooks' gamble paid off and the Thunder benefited from his confidence in the bench en route to a Game 2 win.
The Oklahoma City Thunder did what no team has been able to do in the 2011 NBA playoffs with a 106-100 win in Dallas. The Mavericks had yet to lose on their home floor and put up a fight on Thursday night, but were unable to claw back as the Thunder surged in the fourth quarter.
Scott Brooks rode the hot hands and stayed with the bench in the fourth quarter, leaving Eric Maynor and James Harden on the floor and Russell Westbrook on the bench. Westbrook's absence raise more than a few eyebrows as Brooks rolled the dice and kept Westbrook, who has been maligned at times for selfish play, on the bench.
But the gamble worked: The Thunder pulled away from Dallas and stayed in front in the waning moments to even the series at one game apiece. Kevin Durant scored a game-high 24 points, with Harden adding 23 points off the bench. Westbrook had 18 points and Maynor, his replacement, scored 13 points.
Dirk Nowitzki was far from perfect on Thursday and finally missed a free throw at the most inopportune time. At the line for three free throws and a with a chance to narrow the Mavs' deficit to three, Nowitzki was only able to convert two of three and Dallas was unable to reel-in the Thunder. Nowitzi still finished with a game-high 29 on 10-17 shooting. Tyson Chandler had 15 points and 13 rebounds to collect a double-double, with Jason Kidd adding 13 points. Jason Terry was also in double-figures with 11 points.
With the series even at one, the Mavs and Thunder head to Oklahoma City for Game 3, which is set to get underway Saturday at 9 p.m. EDT.
The Dallas Mavericks were poised to take the lead into the fourth quarter until a late brain-cramp by Jason Terry put James Harden on the line for a chance at a four-point play. Harden converted a three, was fouled and converted the free throw to give the Oklahoma City Thunder a one-point lead through three quarters, 77-76.
Harden was the third of Oklahoma City’s scoring trio, joining Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant as the Thunder’s main offensive threats. Durant currently leads all scorers with 20 points, followed by Westbrook with 18 and Harden with 13.
Dirk Nowitzki went to sleep in the third quarter and failed to score a point. Tyson Chandler has a team-high 15 points, Jason Kidd has 13 points and Nowitzki has 13, as well. Chandler also has a team-high nine rebounds.
The first quarter was all about the Dallas Mavericks, but in the second the Oklahoma City Thunder exacted revenge. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook worked in tandem to reel-in the Mavericks and take a two-point halftime lead, 59-57.
Dirk Nowitzki is still a force to be reckoned with, though his scoring is down compared to Game 1. Nowitzi pushed his streak of made free throws to 38 in the playoffs thus far and has a team-high 13 points, seven of which came from the line. Tyson Chandler is also in double-figures with 11 points.
Durant leads all scorers through the first 24 minutes with 16 points on 7-12 shooting. Westbrook is right behind with 12 points, three rebounds and three assists. James Harden has nine points off the bunch thus far.
Dirk Nowitzki has showed the Oklahoma City Thunder considerably more mercy than he did in Game 1, scoring only seven points on four attempts from the floor plus three free throws with about six minutes left in the first half. The Dallas Mavericks lead 44-42 at home. All that despite Dirk missing two shots, a major and confounding disappointment. He's still making his presence felt of course, pitching four assists so far.
This one will likely wind up another shootout, if trends continue, as both teams are shooting over 50 percent so far.
Despite feeling like a blowout from the start, the Oklahoma City Thunder were able to keep Game 1 close and actually had a chance to cut the lead to five points late in the fourth quarter. Despite Dirk Nowitzki going crazy, the Thunder still had a chance to win the game, meaning they can be competitive in game two if they make a few adjustments on both sides of the basketball.
In the first half, the Dallas Mavericks came out and played zone six possessions in the first half, and they were able to get stops every single time. These stops were mostly self-inflicted as the Thunder really struggled moving the basketball around when facing the Mavericks' zone:
This is the first possession where the Mavericks threw the zone at the Thunder, and they just didn't look prepared for it. You have guys standing around and pointing, trying to figure out what to do with the basketball. Eventually, after trying to penetrate, Kevin Durant is forced to kick it out to Russell Westbrook on the wing. The defense drops off of him, and Westbrook settles for the jumper.
The next possession, Westbrook tries to penetrate without making a pass or working the ball around first. Because there is no passes or no ball movement, the defense is still set in their initial formation, so when Westbrook drives, the defense is able to load up, keep Westbrook from getting to the rim, and force him into a turnover.
On this possession, the Thunder try to screen one of the top defenders on the zone and Eric Maynor uses the screen. However, instead of probing the defense and trying to get the basketball into the middle of the lane, he pulls up off of the dribble, missing the jumper.
This time, the Thunder actually do a decent job with their ball movement. Westbrook brings up the basketball, kicks it to the wing, cuts through to the opposite wing as the ball comes back to him. However, after that, Westbrook makes the catch and just takes a bunch of dribbles, allowing the defense to recover and get set once again. After three crossovers, Westbrook takes a fall away jumper from the three-point line.
Why is ball movement so important? Because after a few passes, you loosen up the defense, and the middle of the zone opens up. The Thunder were able to get the basketball to the middle once, but Nick Collison traveled instead of going up with the jumper:
Here, the Thunder zip the basketball around from one side to the other, opening up the middle. This is important, because the middle of the paint is the underbelly of the zone, and if you can get the basketball there consistently, you will eventually have success.
The Thunder need to be ready for the Mavericks' zone going into Game 2 (because it is going to be coming), and when they see it, they need to get the ball moving and work the ball into the middle.
Stats, LLC has a great NBA blog where they use a lot of there technology to visualize things you aren't used to being able to see. In their post about game one of the Western Conference Finals, they looked at where Nowitzki made his first touch, and visualized it next to Nowitzki's shot chart:
According to STATS, of Dirk’s 83 touches in Game 1, 43 (51.8 percent) were of the zero-dribble variety, meaning that he was able to catch, face up, and either shoot or pass without taking a dribble. The image above and that stat is a pretty good indicator that Nowitzki had it way too easy in terms of being able to make the catch, and once he did make the catch, he had the Thunder defense at his mercy:
Part of what makes Nowitzki so tough in these situations is that normally, if you make a power forward catch it where Dirk is catching the ball, that is a win for the defense, as it isn't normal post position. However, with Nowitzki, this is where he wants to catch the ball. If the Thunder want to make Nowitzki's catch tougher, they need to do two things. One, try to push him out to the three-point line before the pass is made. This is where the most contact is allowed, and though things were called tightly in Game 1, it shouldn't be that way in Game 2. When Nowitzki sets up in his spot, Serge Ibaka and Collison need to continue to try and ride him out farther away from the rim. Also, the Thunder need to pressure the ball handler more.
Most of these entries are made by Jason Kidd, yet instead of playing up on him and making the entry pass harder, his defender is usually playing off of him, as if they are worried about Kidd driving by. If the Thunder pressure up, especially when Westbrook is covering Kidd, it makes the pass harder, makes Kidd take more time to throw the pass, and gives Nowitzki's defender more time to try and get Dirk off of the spot.
If the Thunder are able to force Nowitzki to make his catches a little bit further out than he wants, they might have a better chance to stop him and steal Game 2
Dirk Nowitzki was out of this world and most others in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals as the Dallas Mavericks took a 1-0 series lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder; the German scored 48 points on 12-15 shooting from the floor and 24-24 shooting from the line. He was completely unstoppable; no matter what the Thunder tried, Nowitzki got the ball into the bottom of the night. His performance really took on a life of its own, even as Oklahoma City clawed to within single digits in the fourth quarter.
But Kevin Durant had a brilliant night, too; the silky spinner had 40 points on 10-18 shooting from the floor and 18-19 shooting from the line. Two of the best scorers in the game -- never mind their size compared to our usual idea of top NBA scorers -- went toe-to-toe, shot-for-shot, and Dallas came out ahead. Nowitzki's supporting cast deserves some credit; the Mavericks defense held Russell Westbrook to a 3-15 shooting night, and J.J. Barea exploded for 21 points off of the bench on 8-12 shooting.
While all eyes will be on Dirk and Durant, how those next-tier players perform will be key in Game 2 (9 p.m. ET, ESPN). Barea is no stranger to big scoring nights; he'd hit the 20-point mark five times since Jan. 1. Westbrook has been hot and cold throughout the playoffs; to expect him to shoot 20 percent again is madness. Jason Terry and James Harden were good in Game 1; will either be even better off the bench? Dirk's unstoppable play and Durant's irrepressible game may end up deciding the contest and the series, but they aren't the only two who matter.
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