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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
Tuesday April 19th, 2016

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It is a familiar bit of coach-speak to refer to the NBA as a “make or miss league,” a solemn acknowledgement that on any given night, results can trump talent, probability or circumstance. Kevin Durant’s performance in an 85–84 Game 2 loss against the Mavericks took that concept to ridiculous extremes. One of the league’s most efficient scorers fired away with the same license he’s long had but made almost none of the shots to which he’d grown accustomed. That step-up three-pointer out of the pick-and-roll? Misfired.

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The contested runner in the lane? Just a touch off.

The post-up over a smaller defender? Off-target.

So it went, over and over, much to the misfortune of Durant and the Thunder. Durant went on to take 33 shots with 26 misses, which were more errant attempts than he had ever managed in a playoff game. Still Durant kept firing and still Oklahoma City, understandably, kept feeding him.

But there are off-nights and then there are waking nightmares. Durant went entire stints on Monday with only a single made field goal to show for it, the most striking and dominant part of his game muted in the moment. Give Dallas credit: Rick Carlisle and the Mavericks made their own luck. They bumped, they bodied, they doubled, they hovered, they locked and trailed. The physicality of the defense (and the lack of cooperation from the officials) frustrated Durant, who could only be hyper-aware of the way the odds seemed to turn against him.

Players like Durant typically roll with a loaded die; exemplary length and touch afford his shot attempts a different probabilistic outlook from the league standard, particularly when it comes to contested shots. There are attempts Durant feels comfortable taking that other players (with slower form or lower release points, for example) would be foolish to even try. When those shots, in particular, stop falling, the often rudimentary Thunder offense is shown for its simplicity. More could have been done from a coaching standpoint to create quality looks for Durant. But Billy Donovan, not unlike Scott Brooks before him, had maintained a high-level offense in large part by relying on those same difficult attempts.

This kind of look is par for the course: 

In this particular case, under the weight of 20-plus misses, the result is deflating. This night was a one-of-a-kind calamity and the Thunder knew it. That’s why they continued to set up Durant (if unimaginatively) out of dead balls and timeouts, and that’s why Russell Westbrook dished off to his All-NBA teammate even on the game’s final possession. The trending inaccuracy of Durant’s attempts simply never broke in time for Oklahoma City to build up much of a lead. 

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This is in part what made Game 2 such a shocking and improvisational win for Dallas. There was no formula in play. No team, no matter its defensive conviction, can bank on another career-worst shooting performance from one of the league’s best shooters. All the Mavericks can do is continue to challenge Durant to the extent that their personnel allows and living with whatever makes come as a result. 

Dallas will send a second defender over to contest Durant’s fadeaways when possible:

They will load up on his side of the floor when the Thunder over-isolate:

And Wesley Matthews (who played terrific positional defense), Justin Anderson (who played his way into regular minutes this series) and any Maverick to get caught in a cross-match will work in the hope that Durant might settle like he does here:

Those are real, achievable objectives. Holding Durant to 7-of-33 shooting is something else entirely. There’s room to acknowledge a terrific defensive effort while still recognizing that its specific result was an anomaly. It’s there that we find the Mavericks as well as a Thunder offense that had no reason to rely on such blunt action as it did. Durant, too, is by no means excused, so long as he allows his desperation to drive him to possessions like this:

Durant will come out firing in Game 3, perhaps in much the same ways he missed and missed and missed in Game 2. One would hope, though, that Donovan and his staff might revisit ways to get the ball into Durant’s hands that don’t involve parking him idly in one spot. Durant’s ability to neutralize a defense can make everything seem easy. Consider this strange showing a reminder that it isn’t. There will come minutes and quarters and days when Durant’s shot doesn’t fall. It’s in those moments that Oklahoma City will need some more carefully considered recourse—a shortcoming that has somehow spanned two coaches and six long years.

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