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Why Dion Waiters is the playoff X-factor for the Oklahoma City Thunder
0:42 | NBA
Why Dion Waiters is the playoff X-factor for the Oklahoma City Thunder
Sunday April 17th, 2016

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NBA regulars are conditioned to expect the impossible of Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, whose preparation and tactics have turned the tide in many a playoff series. The challenges of Dallas’s latest, however, seem beyond him. There was no scheming around the dominance of the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 1. Within two minutes, OKC had sprinted away to a 9–0 advantage. Dallas sputtered along to make just 26.2% of its field goals in the opening half and never recovered. So vast was the disparity between the two teams Saturday night—a margin crystallized by the 108–70 final score—that the opening tip made for the game’s most competitive moment.

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Oklahoma City could hardly have been more convincing in the first step of its high-stakes playoff run. The offense was as prolific and efficient as we’ve come to expect. Kevin Durant (23 points, five rebounds, five assists) wasted no time in applying pressure with his drives. Russell Westbrook (24 points, 11 assists, five rebounds) took whatever he wanted in semi-transition, sprinting past Mavericks in the open court and setting up his teammates on the secondary break. When the game slowed, the discrepancy in size and high-end talent only became more apparent. Injuries made the 6'5" Wesley Matthews the Mavs’ starting small forward. With that positioning came the responsibility of covering the 6'11" Kevin Durant, who finished at the rim with ease and barely seemed to register Matthews’s presence when shooting jumpers over his contests. Inside, Enes Kanter (16 points, 13 rebounds) and the Thunder bigs corralled misses to further bury the Mavericks with second-chance points. Scarcity made every basket precious for Dallas. OKC, on the other hand, could scrounge up a few points whenever it needed by executing basic offense and cleaning up after itself.

Not that those putbacks and tip-ins were much needed. Dallas hasn’t been able to score consistently for months, even against the fluctuating lot of regular-season competition. A locked-in Thunder team exaggerated that disadvantage by keeping pressure on the Maverick guards and trusting in their rotations to get back to Dirk Nowitzki in time. Most teams that trend small in their lineups do so to create a point of leverage—some matchup in which either shooting or quickness affords opportunity. Dallas, which was short on wings to begin with and is missing forward Chandler Parsons, relies on three-guard lineups more out of desperation. Trios featuring a combination of Matthews, Deron Williams, an injured J.J. Barea (who tried to play through a groin strain but was ruled out at halftime), Devin Harris and Raymond Felton don’t gain any ground against the Thunder. None among them is explosive enough in their current form to beat OKC’s defense to the basket. None is enough of a pull-up threat to create offense from the outside-in. This turns a series of possessions into lost causes—whether by stalled action against longer defenders on the perimeter or hesitant, pump-fake-heavy drives. 

In all, the Thunder held the Mavs to 13-of-34 (38.2%) shooting in the restricted area, according to NBA.com—a truly gruesome percentage. That kind of interior control allowed the Thunder to play aggressively at the three-point line (where the Mavs shot just 22.2%) by extension. Isolating Nowitzki (18 points on 15 shots) on the block was at times the only recourse for Dallas. That old standby worked in spots, though never to a degree or volume that could realistically keep pace with the Thunder’s onslaught.

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Oklahoma City can be beaten. Yet to do so would require putting the Thunder defenders in difficult positions, over and over, until their rhythm breaks. Westbrook can be caught gambling and attacked. Kanter can be targeted in the pick-and-roll. More important than any one matchup, though, is that the connective tissue of the Thunder team defense is itself vulnerable to player and ball movement. Dallas simply doesn’t have enough team speed and actual scoring threats to stress test OKC’s rotations in this series. Even if a few tweaks and better breaks were to tack on 20 points or so to the Mavericks’ total, they’d still fall well short of the reasonable thresholds for victory. Limping to 90 or 95 points is of no use against a team with two of the most explosive scorers on the planet and a collection of supporting players who thrive off their creation.

Such is the reality of this series. Carlisle can and will tinker with his lineups, perhaps by finding more time for kinetic rookie forward Justin Anderson or slotting Nowitzki at center. He might alter his team’s overall defensive approach by zoning up the interior and challenging the Thunder role players to fire from outside. Film review could reveal some other seam in the defense worth attacking. There’s room to dabble—even more so now that a blowout tone has been set—and obvious room for improvement. The sum of those changes simply may not matter relative to the full, devastating extent of the Thunder’s advantage. 

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