May 01, 2012

Considering their depth, their regular-season record and the presence of three serious scorers, one might have thought that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have burned right through their first-round series with the Dallas Mavericks. Instead, they've barely eked out two wins in their own building, the most recent a 102-99 escape Monday. Talent wills out, but the veteran Mavericks have given the Thunder all they can handle.

• Game 2 began as a game of runs and ended as a war of attrition. Fueled by James Harden's relentlessness in the open floor and some frothy defense by their reserves, the Thunder sprinted to an early 26-7 run, including an 11-1 stretch to close the first quarter. But when the starters returned to the floor, Dallas responded with a 17-4 burst of its own to narrow a 16-point gap to 57-50 at halftime.

But the cagey Mavs seemed to know that a game of wild, manic swings, featuring sprints and spurts favored the young, fresh-legged Thunder and their ridiculously spirited fans. So in the second half, Dallas slowed the game to a crawl. The Mavs drew fouls off the ball, forced Oklahoma City to execute in the half-court, disrupted Kevin Durant with physical play and slowly trudged their way back even. Neither team led by more than six points from the 11:41 mark of the third quarter to the end of the game. The Thunder simply made more plays down the stretch, but the fact that the Mavs kept things so close on the road is a testament to their stylistic discipline.

• From the outset, both teams were intent on asserting their own version of physicality. Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, in particular, seemed to take a special pleasure in putting a hurt on his opponents. He crushed Shawn Marion twice on screens. He attempted to manhandle Dirk Nowitzki off the ball at every opportunity, leading to a minor fracas and a double technical. But Oklahoma City was mistaken if it thought it could intimidate the Mavericks. Indeed, the free-throw parade and slow pace that ensued (both teams shot more than 30 free throws) actually favored Dallas and allowed it to stay close in the third quarter.

• Defending Durant is a nearly insoluble problem. You will likely never prevent a 6-foot-9 wing player with those willowy arms and those futuristic skills from getting his. But stopping point guard Russell Westbrook may be the even greater riddle. The first task for any team facing Westbrook is clearly preventing the breathtakingly explosive point guard from shredding your defense by penetrating the paint and either exploding to the rim or kicking the ball to one of his three-point-shooting teammates. In many ways, this is the action that makes Oklahoma City's offense hum.

Neither Jason Kidd nor Delonte West has seemed up to this task in isolation, so the Mavs began to set their entire defense to the task of keeping Westbrook outside. In their man-to-man defense, they went under screens and occasionally provided extra help in the form of a hedging big man. In their 2-3 matchup zone, the Mavs sagged their perimeter defenders into the paint and moved their big man up in an attempt to wall Westbrook off from the paint. None of this works, though, if Westbrook's jumper is falling. His 29 points on 10-of-21 shooting, most of them on gorgeous, supremely vertical jumpers, kept the Thunder's offense alive all night.

• Another reason the Mavs were able to stay in this game despite their age: a very tall German named Dirk. Nowitzki's matchups with the Thunders' big men -- Serge Ibaka, Perkins and Nick Collison -- are the series' fundamental mismatch. Ibaka and Perkins are long enough to challenge Dirk's trademark post-up jumper from the elbow, but we've all learned by now that when he is in his singular rhythm, there's just no stopping that shot from going in. Of the three, Collison had the most success, using his strong lower body to stand Nowitzki up and take away his airspace -- but Collison spent much of the second half on the bench with foul trouble. What's more, Ibaka's and Perkins' aggressiveness in denying Nowitzki the ball and challenging his shot, plus their typically poor lateral movement, made the Thunder susceptible to Nowitzki's arsenal of up-fakes and shivers.

After his sweet-shooting 8-of-12 performances in first half, Dirk spent the rest of the game attacking the rim, getting layups and drawing fouls. Nevertheless, despite carrying his team with 31 points, it's almost certain he'll lie awake tonight thinking about that pristinely wide-open three-pointer that he missed with 1:31 remaining and his team up by one.

• Nowitzki had a typically masterful game, but his teammates struggled to execute their half-court offense. The Thunder's defensive strategy was to disrupt Dallas by swarming its pick-and-roll and aggressively fronting the Mavs' key scorers (namely Nowitzki and Jason Terry). This had the effect of causing rashes of turnovers during key stretches of the game. Most important, Dallas was forced to work extraordinarily hard to get the ball to its principle offensive players and, as a result, was constantly facing short shot clocks and long, desperate jumpers. The proof is in the numbers: Mavs besides Nowitzki hit only 23-of-60 shots -- and the team made just 5-of-23 three-pointers.

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