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Kevin Durant struggled in Oklahoma City's 93-87 loss to Dallas in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals Saturday night. He made seven of 22 shots, and scored his 24 points with plenty of work at the free throw line and none from behind the arc, where he missed eight shots. This is, of course, cause for criticism of his ability to close.
Actually, NBA.com's Fran Blinebury asserts, it's not his ability to close that should be up for debate, but his desire.
For all the credit that he gets for being unfailingly polite and accommodating, there are times in games when Durant's got to have a bigger ego and demand a bigger say in the outcome.
The predictable Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant comparisons come just paragraphs later. After all, why can't a soft-spoken, humble, team-first star be more like two of the NBA's most legendary alpha male assassins? Doesn't Durant know that championships are for closers like Bryant, whose six-for-24 flailing in Game 7 of last year's Finals
nearly killed gave his Lakers a second consecutive NBA championship?
Part of the problem with Durant — and his oft-criticized teammate, Russell Westbrook — is how new and how unusual they are. Durant's a nearly seven-foot point forward with a pair of NBA scoring titles, but his handle can be suspect, his strength is forever questioned, and his lack of post game makes him a hybrid slasher/jump-shooter. Westbrook's a combo guard being asked to play point guard and coexist with Durant's prodigious scoring. And they both play for a Thunder team that's practically embryonic compared to most that make it to the conference finals.
So, naturally, we reach for old explanations and try to fit the new into old paradigms. That makes sense: it's much easier to explain with old teachings than learn new ones. But the Thunder seem like an exceptional case in a number of ways. Why couldn't Durant break the traditional closer mode, too?
It might behoove Durant to demand the ball more late. But it might also be good for the Thunder to make more shots and build leads rather than falling behind by 23 in the second quarter. Reaching for the most obvious explanation doesn't make it right.
The Dallas Mavericks beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 93-87 in Game 3 of the team's Western Conference Finals series, but it wasn't Dirk Nowitzki doing the damage. Nowitzki had his worst shooting night of the NBA Playoffs, hitting just 7-21 from the floor and drawing only three free throws as the Thunder threw constant double-teams his way. Nowitzki, who was able to punish doubles in a series sweep over the L.A. Lakers, struggled to find the open man without incident in Saturday's game, finishing with seven turnovers. He had 18 points in those 21 shots.
Again, the Mavericks were able to win without Nowitzki going nuts, as he did in Game 1 (48 points, 12-15 FG, 24-24 FT). Shawn Marion put in 18 points on 13 FGAs; otherwise, Dallas did it with defense. Oklahoma City was a painful 1-17 on three-pointers -- many of the misses weren't even close. Both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook struggled from the floor, shooting a combined 15-42. They each scored plenty (Westbrook had 30, Durant 24), but had to do it from the line as the Mavericks defense shut off the valve in the court of play.
That Dallas won Game 3 -- and had such a large lead early -- without Nowitzki playing like gold has to be scary for the Thunder. On the one hand, they should have more confidence in their gameplan to stop him. On the other, the Mavericks know they can win with defense if Dirk struggles.
As the horn sounded to signal the end of the first quarter in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, it looked like the Dallas Mavericks were on their way to steamrolling the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Mavs were outstanding to open the game as they took a 27-12 lead into the second quarter. Even at the half, Dallas was sitting pretty, up 52-36 and in complete control. But in the waning moments of the game, that early lead was needed as the Thunder came storming back.
Dallas' first half was just about picture-perfect. The Mavs assisted on 14 of 21 made baskets in the half as the team scored with crisp passing to find open looks. It was superb team basketball on the offensive end and excellent team defense on the other end of the floor.
But the Thunder made a run and, somehow, made it a game. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Mavs still held a double-digit lead and looked to be on their way to an easy win. Led by Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City came roaring back, cutting the Mavs lead to single-digits and making it interesting, if only for a moment.
With the game in the balance, Dallas turned to Dirk Nowitzki once again and he came through in the clutch. An off-balance runner in the lane with just over five minutes to go stopped the bleeding and another jumper with under a minute to go pushed the Dallas lead back to six, which ended up being the final margin.
The Mavs escaped with a six-point win, 93-87, that shouldn't have been that close in the first place. Whether it was Dallas' complacency or Oklahoma City's urgency, a game that was a blowout turned into a tight one in the fourth quarter. The end result was a 2-1 series lead for the Mavs after a much-needed road win in Oklahoma City.
Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals eventually went to the Dallas Mavericks, a hard-fought 93-87 win. But the mere fact that it was hard-fought was a surprise: Dallas had played a near-perfect game for three-plus quarters, and yet, the Thunder still made the Mavericks sweat late.
Russell Westbrook carried Oklahoma City early in the fourth quarter, and had 14 points in the frame, but it was the Mavericks that kept the Thunder in the game.
Dallas made its fair share of seeming daggers — a Dirk Nowitzki fadeaway from the foul line, a Jason Terry pull-up from nine feet — but the Mavericks missed just enough free throws and committed just enough poorly timed turnovers to keep things close, but kept the miscues just rare enough to maintain a lead of more than one possesion at all times.
On this night, three quarters of grade-A basketball and one C-plus period were enough for Dallas, which got 18 points each from Nowitzki and Shawn Marion and 13 each from Jason Kidd and Jason Terry. It helped that the Thunder made just one of 17 threes, and that Durant made only seven of his 22 shots.
But Dallas could have blown out the Thunder; through three quarters, they certainly had ample opportunity. That Oklahoma City fought back, even only to the point of making a lead precarious, is evidence that this series may have a few more classic rounds.
What haven't the Mavericks done right in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals? With a 70-56 lead heading into the fourth quarter, it's time to take inventory.
Dallas' offense has been superb. The Mavericks' field goal percentage slipped in a cooler third quarter, but Dallas has made seven of 18 threes, nearly 40%, and the Mavericks have assisted on 18 of 27 baskets while committing just nine turnovers. And balanced scoring is carrying the day, with no player scoring more than Shawn Marion's 16 points, but a full seven players contributing six or more.
On defense, Dallas' height and smart double-teaming of Kevin Durant has thwarted Oklahoma City repeatedly. Durant has 15 points but has made just four of 18 shots; Russell Westbrook leads the Thunder with 16 points, but is just four of 11 from the field and has made his bones on getting to the free throw line. Oklahoma City's field goal percentage through three quarters is 32.1% — and that's up from the first half.
The Thunder actually won the third quarter, 20-18, but barely cut into Dallas' lead. And that was even with the questionable foul called on Tyson Chandler for a phantom elbow of James Harden.
If the Thunder don't figure out how to solve either Dallas' offense or defense soon, this first Western Conference Finals game in Oklahoma City is likely to be remembered as the most disappointing Western Conference Finals game in Oklahoma City long after this series.
Through two quarters of Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, it looks very much like the Dallas Mavericks will take a 2-1 series lead on the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Mavs kept up the pressure in the second quarter, and take a 52-36 lead into halftime.
Dallas led by as much as 23 in the second quarter, and is running its offense without relying on Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki has just four points — six other Mavericks have more than four points, including every other starter — and has taken four shots so far. Exceptional ball movement has given the Mavs open shot after open shot, and they've made a lot of them: Shawn Marion leads Dallas with 12 points, and the Mavericks have racked up 14 assists on 21 field goals.
The Thunder, on the other hand, are relying on their youngest, biggest guns. Russell Westbrook, who sat for much of the first quarter with two fouls, leads Oklahoma City with 12 points, and Kevin Durant has 10. But the other Thunder players are a combined five-of-17 from the field, and Game 2 spark James Harden has been completely shut out of the scoring column. Worse still, the Thunder have been forced into a lot of bad jumpers — and have made just three on the night.
It would be easy to say the Thunder simply haven't shown up. But, of course, tonight is sort of special. So thanks, Oklahoma City, for the proliferation of Rapture jokes on Twitter.
After their Game 2 defeat in Dallas, one could have forgiven the Mavericks for coming out a little low for Game 3 before Oklahoma City's raucous crowd. If its blistering start to Game 3 is any indication, Dallas isn't interested in being forgiven for anything: the Mavericks pummeled the Thunder in the first quarter of Game 3, and hold a 27-12 lead heading into the second period.
The Mavericks were dominant on both ends in the first quarter, building a lead that stretched to 17 points at one juncture by shooting better than 50% from the field — Shawn Marion leads the Mavs with eight points — and stifling Oklahoma City by relentlessly double-teaming Kevin Durant. That led to lots of long jumpers and poor shots; no Oklahoma City player made more than one shot in the Thunder's nightmarish first quarter, which including just four makes on 17 field goal attempts.
The Thunder's fans were less than disheartened by the home team's struggles: most of the crowd remained standing throughout the quarter, clearly appreciative of their team's efforts in producing the first-ever Western Conference Finals game in Oklahoma City.
Now, if only the Thunder show up for the game, too.
Despite the fact that everyone seems to be talking about Russell Westbrook and his benching, the Dallas Mavericks were the team that ended up losing both game two and the homecourt advantage in the Western Conference Finals. If Dallas is to take back homecourt advantage and take a 2-1 series lead, they are going to need to make adjustments to their pick and roll game on both sides of the basketball.
Offense: Be More Aggressive In Pick And Roll Situations
In game one, the Dallas Mavericks used J.J. Barea as the ball handler in a pick and roll ten different times, having great success creating space for Barea and allowing him to attack. In game two however, the Mavericks ran a ball screen for Barea just five times. Out of four of these five ball screens, instead of attacking Barea settled for three point shots. Although he hit two of the four threes, this lack of aggressiveness kept Barea out of the lane and kept him from creating havoc:
On all of these three point attempts, Barea had himself a chance to turn the corner and get into the lane. However, instead of doing so he settled for the three point shot, and this is exactly what the Oklahoma City Thunder wanted, baiting Barea into taking these shots by going under every single ball screen. In each one of the plays above, Barea's speed would allow him to turn the corner (or at least try to), opening up a number of things. His shot in the lane, a kickout to the corner for a three, and maybe most importantly, when Barea attacks, he tends to draw the hedge man out (usually the defender covering Dirk Nowitzki), leaving Dirk open for the easy jumper.
J.J. Barea needs to start attacking again, putting the defense on their back foot if he wants to replicate the success he and his teammates had one game one.
Defense: Turn Kevin Durant Away From Ball Screens
Something the Oklahoma City Thunder did with Kevin Durant in game two was use him in ball screen situations. The Thunder ran pick and rolls with Durant as the ball handler five different times, allowing him to score six points in the process. One of the reasons Durant was able to have success with the pick and roll is because of the way the Mavericks were defending him:
Watching the two possessions above, you should notice that the Mavericks are playing this pick and roll very passively, giving him the space to come off of the screen and create (once getting fouled and once getting a wide open jumper. It was interesting that the Mavericks were playing it this way, especially considering who the screeners were. Both Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka aren't the biggest threats to knock down a jumper in pick and pop situations.
To me, it was almost as if the Mavericks took their pick and roll strategy for Russell Westbrook (giving him plenty of space, letting him take jumpers instead of driving) and used it when Kevin Durant started coming off of ball screens. That wasn't going to work.
Later in the game, the Mavericks got a little bit smarter when it came to defending Durant:
The Mavericks had success making it tougher for Durant by turning him away from the screens by showing really early and hard on the hedges. These hedges basically forced Durant to go away from the screen, allowing his defender to play Durant one on one and not having to fight through a screen. The result was a turnover and a tough shot after an even tougher move.
The Durant pick and roll is something the Thunder had success with, so you can expect to see more of it in game three. The key will be whether or not Dallas gives Durant space when he comes off of the screen. If they can force him to go away from the screen like they did in the final two possessions, they can make stoping Kevin Durant a little bit easier.
Given the post-game reaction to Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Dallas Mavericks, and how razor-focused it was on Russell Westbrook, who didn't play at all in the fourth quarter, you'd have thought the Thunder had lost. This was considered by many to be the end of the age of innocence for the Thunder, the moment their image as a Pollyanna team lovin' life and everyone was sullied with the truth, the truth that they are as flawed as all other teams.
And, again, they won.
The result will be all that matters again in Game 3 (9 p.m. ET, ESPN), which will be held back in OKC at the Ford Center, a gym sure to be deafening in its support for the Thunder. But Dallas has been just fine on the road in these playoffs; after dropping the team's first two games in Portland, the Mavericks have won three straight road games. The Thunder have been far better at home (6-2) than on the road (3-4) in the postseason; so much of OKC's success comes at the foul line, and teams tend to draw more fouls at home.
Dirk Nowitzki had been great everywhere; stick him on Neptune and he'd dropped 20, at least. In Game 2, he chilled a bit, but he's still playing better than anyone in this postseason, and so long as he's right, Dallas can beat any team. That's quite a luxury to have; with streaky scorers elsewhere on the team and some strong interior defenders, Dallas really is a chore.
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