Did I mention last night’s win was impressive? Because it totally was. And it’s put the Thunder in a position to finish this off in four, something they’ve never done before. Considering the stress of the first two games and the magnitude of the opponent, that would be quite the achievement.
Question is, does this thing return to Oklahoma City? Actually, that question and two more.
1. Were Games 1 and 2 a more accurate representation of the separation between the Thunder and Mavs, or Game 3?
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Allow me to hedge on my own question. I think it’s something in between. Including two preseason games, the Thunder are now 8-1 against Dallas this season. That’s hard to ignore. Some of the games have been painfully close, and some have been excruciatingly close. But for the most part, the Thunder have been the clear superior team. They have more talent while the Mavs live on extremely thin margin. If Dirk isn’t all-world and Jason Terry doesn’t make everything, the Mavs can’t find points to keep pace with the Thunder.
Patrick James, Daily Thunder: Game 3, but with a caveat. I think the Thunder are a much better, more complete and more championship-ready from a physical standpoint than the Mavericks. If each team played their best game, the Thunder still probably wins by 10 points. But I expected the Mavericks’ mental toughness to be a much bigger hurdle for the Thunder. I thought OKC was more likely to win big than win close, especially early in the series, and that the Mavs would be able to pull at least a couple of games out through good coaching, willpower and smarts. But the Thunder got the clutch nerves out of the way early in the series and are now showing their superiority.
J.A. Sherman, Welcome to Loud City: I think that Game 2 is probably the best representation of what we have in the Thunder this season as compared to the Mavericks. OKC’s top 4-5 players are simply more talented both offensively and defensively than Dallas’ top 4-5 players, and that talent should manifest itself over the course of the game. While Game 3 was certainly a showcase of the Thunder playing dominant ball on both ends of the court, Game 2 tends to reflect better how the Thunder are supremely talented but still learning to play well in the playoffs. Games 2 and 3 were similar in terms of how OKC was able to get an early lead, but the difference was that in Game 2 they allowed the veteran Mavs squad to stifle the big runs that could have put the game away early. I think that the dichotomy between OKC having the ability to go on big runs while still struggling to keep experienced teams down on the mat after those runs is a team trait that will stay with them through the playoffs.
Young: E. And my someone else is Scott Brooks. It’s not hard to be a successful coach when you’ve got the kind of players he does, but I can see marked improvement in his handling of rotations and game management from last postseason. He’s gone small when he needed to go small, stayed big when the Mavs tried to catch the Thunder in mismatches and hasn’t been afraid to sub early and often. If you’ve noticed this series, Rick Carlisle has been the one trying different rotations, scrambling to find answers. Carlisle can’t figure out how to match the Thunder’s bigs, doesn’t have an answer for Russell Westbrook and has played 11 players in meaningful minutes trying to find answers. Brooks has wisely cut Nazr Mohammed out, who has no role with the Mavs’ lack of bigs, hasn’t fallen in love with his smallball group and even hit the jackpot in Game 2 with a rarely used lineup. He’s trusted Derek Fisher and it’s paid off. His players are what make it work and unless the perform, it doesn’t work, but I think Brooks has earned some recognition.
James: A. The Thunder wouldn’t be up 3-0 without strong performances up and down the entire roster. But if you have to pick one guy, it has to be Westbrook. Westbrook has been better at being a force in games when he’s struggling with his shot, but it’s still a worry. He can still shoot the Thunder out of a big lead or prevent them from coming back when he’s off and lets it affect other aspects of his game. But in this series, he followed up his only really tough shooting half with an inspired second half performance in Game 3 to be a catalyst in turning a comfortable lead into a huge one. His steadying efforts in the first two games during Durant’s shooting slump kept the pressure on the Mavs, and they folded.
Sherman: A. Russell Westbrook. What makes this answer conclusive to me is that both OKC and Dallas know it too. Westbrook’s play in Games 1 & 2 essentially forced Mavs coach Rick Carlisle to publicly admit what we thought we were seeing – Westbrook has taken a big step forward in his personal development from a season ago and Dallas has no easy answer for it. For Carlisle to actually confess that he might have to take his best defender in Shawn Marion off of Kevin Durant just to try give his team a chance, we knew that the mental edge was shifting. Sometimes you and I the spectators ‘think’ we know things, but the players themselves, they really do know things. This post-Game 3 quote by Dirk Nowitzki says it all: “Westbrook has been the key. I think sometimes over the last year or whatever he’ll get rattled or turn the ball over or something, make a bad decision, but he’s been stellar. He’s been shooting the ball extremely well. He’s been making the right plays.” It is quite the admission by Dirk – essentially he is saying that part of the Mavs’ game plan was to wait for Westbrook to revert into his mistake-prone ways and then pounce. In Games 1 and 2, that relapse never happened. Westbrook has played at a high level throughout, kept his mistakes to a minimum, and was the primary reason why OKC was able to head to Dallas up 2-0.
3. Fact or Fiction: There will be a Game 5.
Young: Fiction. The Thunder haven’t swept anyone yet. They had this same opportunity last postseason against the Nuggets and just didn’t finish Game 4 well. OKC has clearly matured and certainly wants to end this now and not let the Mavs sense any kind of hope. Plus, I think the Mavs are just worn. They have a ton of pride and will definitely compete, but in Game 3, they looked old and tired. They never entirely got over the hangover from their championship, plus they were missing very key pieces. The Thunder smell blood in the water, and are circling.
James: Fact. I’m perhaps guilty of giving the Mavs too much credit through this series so far, and I may look silly on Saturday night if the Thunder blow their doors off like they did Thursday. But I still suspect Dallas has too much pride to completely roll over, and the Thunder has certainly proved capable of losing focus every now and then. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Mavs tough out one last win this season in front of an appreciative crowd, and then the Thunder refocusing in front of the ravenous home fans in Game 5.
Sherman: “Fact, but I do so as an NBA fan who simply understands probability and remembers history. It is very, very difficult to beat any team in the NBA four consecutive times, especially the defending champs. Dallas was able to pull it off last season against the Lakers because LA suffered a complete meltdown in Game 4. By contrast, OKC had a chance to sweep the Nuggets in the first round but could not quite get it done because Denver played their best game of the series and OKC lost their composure a bit down the stretch. Even so, while my head says ‘fact,’ my gut says ‘fiction’ because OKC really exposed Dallas in Game 3. The Mavs do not have the shooters they did a year ago. When OKC realized in Game 1 that by bottling up Jason Terry there was no viable perimeter shooter to step into his place (like Barea, Stevenson, or Stojakovic), Dallas became a one-man show. Game 4 is all on Dirk, and OKC knows it. Control Dirk and Dallas falls. Then again, he’s still Dirk.