Basketball fans could find no better show on Wednesday night than a prime-time matchup between the Mavericks and Thunder, two talented offenses built on explosive potential. Each found plenty of combustible material in the defense of the other. Points flowed in virtually equal measure throughout, with neither team ever leading by more than 10 points along the way. It was a brilliant exhibition for those in the stands of the Chesapeake Energy Arena or glued to their televisions at home—the kind that leaves Rick Carlisle and Scott Brooks sleepless with visions of all that their teams surrendered.
Plenty is told by the final score of the Mavericks' 135-131 victory. That combined point total is the highest of any regulation game this season. The collective true shooting between the Mavericks and Thunder (63.6 percent) stood nearly 10 points higher than the Warriors' league-leading season average. Dallas scored 72 points in the paint. Oklahoma City got whatever cleanup it needed from the offensive glass. For as sensational and exciting as this game turned out to be, it was decided by which team could hemorrhage slightly less.
That Dallas ultimately did so is important for its postseason prospects. A single game separated the Mavericks and the Thunder prior to Wednesday, meaning that same margin cushioned Dallas from the unenviable eighth seed. Any of the West's top four would make for a first-round challenge. The top-seeded Warriors, though, have a statistical resume bolstered by historical greatness. Avoiding Golden State in the playoff bracket would in itself give a relative boost to a lower-seeded team's odds for an upset.
There's time yet for Oklahoma City to close the gap, though it goes without saying that a head-to-head loss is an opportunity squandered. Not only does it cost the Thunder in their own loss and the Mavericks' win, but it seals the head-to-head tiebreaker in Dallas' favor. Had the Thunder managed a few more stops, their win would have evened the season series between the teams at two, shifting the tiebreaker criterion in the case that both ended with the same record. The next tiebreaker in line: Conference record, in which Oklahoma City would have been 23-23 to Dallas' 24-21. A tough margin, to be sure, but one still up to chance.
The Thunder just couldn't manage the defensive structure to claim that advantage. Three Oklahoma City players—Russell Westbrook, Enes Kanter and Anthony Morrow—ended with 30-plus points and Westbrook a triple double (11 rebounds and 11 assists) to boot. The three players' combined points total alone would have outscored six of the teams in action on Wednesday. But without a defense capable of offering even the slightest resistance, those individual scoring outbursts meant little. The Thunder breakdowns were sadly in-character. Since the All-Star break, only five teams in the league have allowed more points per possession than Oklahoma City, per NBA.com. The elite defense that has historically buoyed the Thunder now takes on more water than Westbrook and company can bail out.
Serge Ibaka's eventual return will be critical. That said, it's not as if his presence alone has satisfied the Thunder's defensive needs of late. With Ibaka on the court since the All-Star break, Oklahoma City has allowed a gross (and worse-than-average) 105.8 points per 100 possessions. The precision hasn't been there all year for the Thunder, and the removal of other quality defenders (Andre Roberson, Kevin Durant) coupled with the arrival one a glaring net-negative on that end (Enes Kanter) has left them in a tough spot.
Dallas has fared better of late, but it faces similar, fundamental questions in regard to stopping playoff-caliber offenses. The Maverick defense has improved overall since acquiring Rajon Rondo—at least to the point where it isn't an every-possession problem. Rondo, for his part, actually played sound individual defense that made things difficult for Westbrook. Dallas simply couldn't find the defensive balance necessary to take away the Thunder's perimeter shooting (Oklahoma City hit 14 threes on 45.2-percent shooting from deep) and interior play. In their scramble, the Mavericks ended up surrendering both.
[daily_cut.NBA] And to think: This wasn't even a matchup with particularly threatening wing scorers, the likes of which can exploit Monta Ellis and overwhelm Chandler Parsons. One could only shrug at some of the shots hit by Morrow and Dion Waiters, though both were sprung open with far greater frequency than should be allowed. Westbrook and Kanter will naturally draw more attention than the Thunder's other scorers. In loading up on their position, however, the Mavericks can't become so negligent of the other players on the floor.
Things cleaned up in those minutes where Al-Farouq Aminu filled in for Dirk Nowitzki at power forward, though solutions need be found that don't omit the Mavericks' most important shooter. Nowitzki has reached a point in his career where his defense—never great but long competitive—is a problem. That doesn't bode well considering how much Dallas will need him on the floor come playoff time, particularly when Amar'e Stoudemire makes for a terrible defensive counterpart. There is no quick fix. Any Mavericks playoff run of import will need be propelled by a defensive gear beyond what we've seen of Dallas and/or some tactical wizardry from Carlisle.
This is the fate of the underdog, and it's one that Oklahoma City shares. Neither of these teams will be favored in its first-round series, regardless of opponent. On Wednesday we saw a glimpse of why—that deficit that separates a compelling, talented team from one likely to contend for the ultimate prize.