Veteran Dallas and upstart Oklahoma City staged a good old-fashioned border war
This is an article from the May 30, 2011 issue
It's only natural if your attention is drawn to the hip, trendy party happening in the East, where the conference finals shuttled last week from Rush Street to South Beach and the league MVP battled the trio of stars who have been the NBA's celebrity lightning rods all season. But it would be a shame if you were so dazzled by all that glamour that you missed the less glitzy get-together out West, where the Mavericks and the Thunder were firing away at one another—and sometimes at themselves—in a Red River feud that was spicier than good barbecue.
While the Bulls and the Heat were setting a record on TNT as the most-watched NBA telecast in cable history in Game 1 of the Eastern finals (11.1 million viewers), Dallas and Oklahoma City were turning their series into a tough-talking, elbow-throwing, blood-boiling border war that, like a classic Western, featured dueling gunslingers (Mavs 7-footer Dirk Nowitzki and Thunder forward Kevin Durant went for 48 and 40 points, respectively, in Game 1), showdowns (OKC center Kendrick Perkins and his counterpart, Tyson Chandler, went chest-to-chest and got technicals 70 seconds into the series) and staredowns that would make Clint Eastwood proud (the normally undemonstrative Durant, after a nasty dunk on 7-foot Brendan Haywood). Apparently caught up in the theme, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook even blew on both index fingers after hitting a three-pointer in Game 2, then pretended to holster them like six-shooters.
It was quickly clear that the teams were not just in the middle of a gritty playoff series but also at the beginning of what promises to be a deliciously intense interstate rivalry. Oklahoma residents who cheered for the Mavericks—without ever calling them Dallas—before the Oklahoma City franchise came to town from Seattle three years ago have had to choose whether to turn against their once-favorite team. At least one fan split the difference, carrying a sign outside Oklahoma City Arena before Game 3 that read, HOOK 'EM, THUNDER!
Though the tensions may never rise to the level of those surrounding the college football rivalry between the Sooners and the Longhorns, which has burned for more than a century, both sides take extra pleasure from whipping their neighbors from across the river. "Anytime you have an Oklahoma team against a Texas team you're going to have that extra little bit of intensity from the fans," says Durant, a former Longhorn. "That's just the way it is down here."
The forecast was bleak for the Thunder, who fell behind 3--1 on Monday after blowing a 15-point lead with 4:50 left in the fourth quarter and lost 112--105 in overtime. But if Oklahoma City can't beat the Mavs, perhaps the Thunder can learn from them. Durant, who admitted to being frustrated by his poor shooting in a Game 3 loss (7 for 22, including 0 for 8 on three-point attempts), would do well to study the 32-year-old Nowitzki, who stayed cool enough despite his own offensive struggles (7-for-21 shooting and seven turnovers) to provide crucial buckets down the stretch.
"The big boy wasn't going to let this one go," Mavericks point guard Jason Kidd said of Nowitzki's fourth quarter, in which he scored 10 points in the final seven minutes. With a cold hand from the three-point arc and the Thunder's Nick Collison effectively forcing him to go right, away from his strength, Nowitzki went to his midrange game, spinning for a pair of pull-up jumpers that helped stave off OKC's late rally. There is a patience to Nowitzki's game that he gained from previous playoff failures; before this postseason, Dallas had won just one playoff series since losing to the Heat in the 2006 Finals. "You learn not to get overanxious," Nowitzki said after Game 3. "Some nights you just have to wait and trust that your time will come." Durant, 22, may have to fall short in a postseason or two in order to fully grasp that idea.
The Thunder can also learn from the Mavs' exemplary ball movement, which creates enough offensive balance that they don't always need Nowitzki to shoot the lights out as he did in Game 1. Whether it started with Nowitzki passing out of the double team or with guard J.J. Barea driving and kicking the ball out to long-range shooters Jason Terry, Peja Stojakovic and Kidd, Dallas zipped passes until Oklahoma City's defensive rotations couldn't keep up. That led to seven Mavs scoring between seven and 18 points in Game 3. The Thunder's attack, in contrast, can become a stagnant two-man affair, as it did in the same game, when Westbrook and Durant scored 54 of the team's 87 points.
Dallas and Oklahoma City could be striking up a feud at just the right time for the NBA. With the Celtics, Spurs and Lakers growing long in the tooth, the league could use a fresh set of running hostilities, and the Red River rivals seem like a natural fit. They are perfect counterpoints: the Mavericks experienced but with their championship hopes still unfulfilled, feeling the urgency that comes with age, and the Thunder young and new to the elite level, eager to break through for a title.
Though Oklahoma City won Game 2 in Dallas 106--100 to even the series, it was clear that in order to reach the Finals it would have to resolve a potentially divisive situation with the callow but supremely talented Westbrook. After being visibly angry when coach Scott Brooks pulled him from the game in the third quarter after forcing a bad shot and committing a turnover, the point guard watched the entire fourth period from the bench as backup Eric Maynor helped lead Oklahoma City to the victory.
Westbrook, 22, was much calmer after the game than he had been when he was yanked. "I was just sitting there waiting for my name to be called," he said of his fourth-quarter exile. "We won, so I'm good." It later became clear that he had been more upset about his teammates' failure to execute a play than at Brooks, but that hardly erased the doubts that have emerged about whether the Thunder can win a championship with a point guard who sometimes becomes too shot-happy and seems to forget that his primary job is to make sure that Durant gets enough touches. His erratic performance was in stark contrast to Kidd, whose statistics weren't eye-catching but who repeatedly fed Nowitzki and his other teammates in exactly the right spots.
The silver lining of the Game 3 loss was that Westbrook didn't sulk, bouncing back nicely with 30 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter. But the issue has never been his ability to score, it's his tendency to dominate the ball at inopportune times. Is it a function of his youth and inexperience as a playmaker, or is there something darker at play—jealousy of Durant's position as Oklahoma City's alpha male?
Ominous comparisons have been made between the Westbrook-Durant dynamic and the Stephon Marbury--Kevin Garnett partnership with the Timberwolves in the 1990s, suggesting that this may be another situation in which a young star point guard tries to grab a bigger share of attention from a more celebrated teammate. Thunder teammates insist there is no such power struggle going on, and Durant and Westbrook seem as friendly as ever, playfully pushing and shoving each other during shootarounds and after practices.
"Russ has his head on straight," says Durant. "He probably gets more criticism than he should. When we win everybody gets credit, and when we lose people seem to focus in on him. It's not really fair, but he knows that comes from outside. He doesn't hold that against anybody on the team." Brooks downplayed the situation as well, saying that he didn't feel the need to check on Westbrook's state of mind after his extended bench time in Game 2. "I might have had to massage some ego if Russell weren't a team guy, but he is, so there was no need for that," Brooks said.
It also helps that Westbrook has a reputation for letting his occasional flashes of temper fade as quickly as they come. His inconsistency may be due not so much to ego but to learning his position on the fly after playing extensively at shooting guard in his two seasons at UCLA. Westbrook is a late bloomer whose basketball instincts aren't as refined as some of his more experienced peers. He didn't crack the varsity starting lineup at Leuzinger High in Lawndale, Calif., until he was a junior. His scholarship offers were limited to such mid-major schools as Creighton, Kent State and San Diego until the Bruins became interested late in his recruitment. "I feel like I've accomplished a lot but I still have a lot to learn," he says. "All I can do is put aside what people say and try to play to the best of my ability and try to help us get where we're trying to go."
On Monday, Westbrook again struggled, turning the ball over six times and missing 15 of 22 shots. That Dallas railled behind Nowitzki (40 points) came as no surprise to the Thunder. "They're a veteran team and their window is short on chances of winning a title," Perkins said of the Mavericks. The Thunder, conversely, is a young squad that figures to have more chances, probably better chances, as its players mature. But they should expect to see plenty more of the Mavericks in their path, aging or not, for years to come. Rivals always have a way of finding each other.