Fast Breaks: Thunder vs. Mavericks, Game 3
If the Dallas Mavericks ever had any hope of mounting a serious title defense, this was a game they had to have. They were playing in front of their own exorcised fans, having narrowly dropped two games at Oklahoma City that they probably should have won. They had put the screws to the league's scoring champ while their own superstar was starting to heat up. Everything seemed ripe. Instead, the Thunder exposed the Mavericks' age, swallowed up their offense and ran them out of their own building. One look at Mark Cuban grimly swearing to himself courtside told you all you need to know: Dallas' 95-79 Game 3 loss was a crusher.
• When the Mavericks scored the first four points of the second half to cut Oklahoma City's lead to 50-45, they seemed to have caught a wave. But the Thunder proceeded to outscore the Mavs 36-15 over the ensuing 13 minutes, in the process reducing Dallas' offense to a scuffling shell of its former self. After that initial burst, the Mavericks scored just 12 points on 2-of-16 shooting. It was during this stretch of the game that Oklahoma City's youth and athleticism shone through. The Thunder helped inside on every Dallas drive, sending a second defender into the paint to deter penetration -- often someone very tall and intimidating like Serge Ibaka or Kendrick Perkins -- while still recovering aggressively when the Mavs kicked the ball outside.
And whenever Dallas attempted to exploit a passing lane or dish the ball to an open cutter, Oklahoma City closed the gap with a vengeance. The Thunder are not an entirely consistent defensive team, but when they get locked in, they can really swallow you up.
• It may be their age showing, or the loss of players like Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson, not to mention the disorder sewn by the Lamar Odom saga. It may be the lockout or the injuries or simply Oklahoma City's frantic, athletic defense. But the Mavericks simply have not been able to conjure the offensive magic that spirited them to the title last season. They haven't executed their sets with precision, they haven't moved the ball with that old fluidity, they haven't played with that remarkable group mind. Their series average of 15.4 assists to 15.0 turnovers tells a small part of just how ragged and inconsistent their offense has been.
• A large part of that great defensive effort stemmed from the yeoman's labor that Perkins and Ibaka provided in checking Dirk Nowitzki. It's not that Nowitzki shot the ball so poorly -- once he got the ball in good position, he was able to get his shot -- but that the Thunder big men were able to deny him touches in good spots on the floor. Perkins was particularly skilled at using his strength and nasty attitude to push Dirk off his spots, deny him the ball and wear him out. To wit: Nowitzki took only three third-quarter shots and the Mavs short-circuited their offense, attempting to force him the ball.
• One of the major stories of the series had been Shawn Marion's ferocious defense on Kevin Durant. As Perkins did on Nowitzki, Marion made Durant work to just catch the ball. And once he did have it, Marion bodied up to Durant, taking away his airspace and forcing him into extremely difficult shots.
Well, Durant found a way around this problem in Game 3. He hit five of his seven first-quarter shots not by dominating Marion in isolation, but by seizing opportunities in other phases of the game. He hit an early transition three-pointer. He ran off a down screen to find an open 15-footer on the wing. He took advantage of Dallas' matchup zone by camping out on the weak side, waiting for a sharp skip pass and nailing an open three. When Marion made the slightest mistake -- over-helping on the driving Thabo Sefolosha, for instance, and leaving Durant open on the wing -- Durant's stroke was pure. By the end of the first half, Durant had (for the first time in the series) found his rhythm. He finished with 31 points and hit 11-of-15 from the field.
• Russell Westbrook's mid-range jumper has been one of the major stories of the series. In the first two games, Westbrook had taken advantage of Dallas' intentionally soft perimeter D to find his range. But in the third quarter of this game, he relied on his own ridiculous skill in hitting five of his seven field goals. The threat of Westbrook's dynamic drives to the rim is so great that defenders are forced to react to any feint or hesitation when he handles the ball. When he is hitting -- as he has been most of the series -- this is all of the space he needs to rise up and drain a jumper. And should you be drawn too close trying to contest that wicked jumper, as Delonte West was late in the third, well, that's when Westbrook attacks. He dropped West with a stomach-churning crossover, skipped between two help defenders and then soared to the rim for an easy layup. Doesn't really leave you with too many options, does it?