The bounces have certainly gone Oklahoma City’s way through two games against the Mavericks. Just ask Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion. Just because it can be interpreted as complaining, especially in Marion’s case, doesn’t make it untrue. But there’s a lot more for the Thunder to be encouraged about than just luck being on their side (for now). A lot of the flexibility, creativity and toughness that was so lacking against Dallas in last year’s playoffs has proven to be there for OKC this season.
It’s impossible for any team to escape the pressure of previous postseason shortcomings without a turnaround in another playoff run. Success in the regular season, no matter how impressive, does nothing to answer questions about problems in the playoffs. There’s the mechanical aspect of the different pace and style of the playoffs — there’s simply no way to replicate it during the regular season. But more than that, it’s the lingering story lines and narratives that pile on more pressure. The regular season means little, and a playoff flameout would only intensify the pressure going into next season’s campaign.
This has been heightened even more for the Thunder. The tension inside Chesapeake Energy Arena through two games has been palpable. It’s eerie how, with mostly the same Thunder and the overhauled Mavs on the same court in the playoffs late in a close game, the passage of time between last season’s series and this one’s seems to have shrunk to nothing. It’s de ja vu all over again, with the crowd wearing same-colored shirts and the taut game on the court and Dirk’s crazy hair sticking out in the Mavs timeout huddle and the Thunder bench mob going crazy.
Except it hasn’t, because the Thunder have been coming up with the plays, and the bounces, at the end of games to pick up wins. The series isn’t close to sewn up, with the proud Mavericks capable of winning both games at home. But an advantage Dallas had going into the series was in-game adjustments, which is a key difference between that meaningless regular season and the playoffs. And the Thunder’s adjustments and growth is what has kept OKC within striking distance, and vaulting into a late lead, to be in position to get the lucky bounce that wins the game.
Credit should be shared among Scott Brooks, his staff and the players. They’re by no means done showing they’ve made the strides needed to answer a lot of the questions about how the young Thunder can put it together for a title run, but the first two games of the postseason have been a good start to show they’ve all made progress individually and as a group. Their first two opportunities have been a good opening argument that the composure and know-how at the end of games are getting to where they need to be.
Five things truly stand out after two games when looking for positive signs in the Thunder’s playoff growth. There’s a lot of time for regression or flaws to come out before this series is over, but if these are trends that continue, this could be the beginning of another long playoff run in OKC.
— Oklahoma City is making smart defensive adjustments.
Some pretty savvy defensive adjustments during the playoffs aren’t exactly new in Oklahoma City. Gutsy, game-changing switches during the postseason for the Thunder date to Kevin Durant guarding Kobe Bryant late in Game 3 of the Lakers series in 2010. KD had a block and a bucket in a critical fourth quarter stretch to seal the game. Defensive creativity and flexibility late in games was a big part of the Thunder’s run to the conference finals last season as well.
But the trend has continued through the first part of this year’s Mavericks series and been a strength for OKC so far. From Russell Westbrook hounding Jason Terry in the second half of Game 1 and Kendrick Perkins’ late defense on Dirk in that game to leaving Thabo Sefolosha in for a longer first-half shift in Game 2, Brooks’ matchup calls have been effective so far.
Even when Perkins got burned repeatedly in the second quarter during Dirk’s run to erase the Thunder’s 16-point lead, Perk has still been effective against Nowitzki, especially late in games. He’s quicker than he was last year with bum knees and extra weight. If you guard Dirk for long stretches, he’s going to make some buckets. But Brooks has shown he has the right touch in rotating Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Perk onto Nowitzki, and his choice to put Perkins on him late in both games paid off.
— James Harden has been involved late. Not coincidentally, the Thunder have been better at getting inside and getting to the line down the stretch.
Thunder fans have long wanted Harden to be more involved in the closing minutes of close games. Especially in Game 2, the wish was granted. Harden closed out the game at the line with four free-throws.
The Thunder have been one of the best in the NBA from the line in terms of getting to the stripe and also converting the shots, so it’s a wonder they don’t get the chance to seal more playoff games with free-throws. Watching March Madness this year, which always features a few games where teams calmly salt away (or blow) a game from the line down the stretch, it made me wonder why OKC doesn’t do that more often. There are fewer NBA games that end in the same fashion for the entire closing minute of the game, but it still happens, and it happened for Game 2.
Harden’s involvement led to something the Thunder should be doing anyway down the stretch, which is get to the rim. Their failure to get to the rim and draw whistles was a big reason why they weren’t able to sew up Game 3 of the conference finals last season when OKC blew a late 15-point lead. When Harden is playing aggressive ball, he’s going to cut inside the lane and either get a layup or get fouled. That’s what he did on Monday, and that helped Oklahoma City win the game.
Harden has had a strong start to the postseason by being aggressive and leading by example in the fourth quarter. More playoff games that feature the Thunder’s athletic scorers slicing into the lane down the stretch would be a good sign. And Harden has carried his newly cemented status as a no-doubt first option scorer into the postseason, which will also go a long way in determining how long the Thunder can play this postseason. That, combined with the next point here, makes the Thunder as dangerous as ever.
— Westbrook is the Thunder’s mainstay.
Marion is playing some of the best basketball of his post-Steve Nash career at both ends of the floor, including a stellar effort in forcing Durant into poor shooting nights. It has been said for a long time that the Thunder need consistent scoring from other players in the postseason to combat this. Every good playoff team has at least one lockdown wing defender, so someone is going to have to pick up the slack during the inevitable tough nights for KD.
We’ve already talked about Harden, which is key. But Westbrook’s performance, if he keeps it up, could be the ultimate difference between a Finals run and an exit in the Western Conference bracket. Westbrook has been dominant enough offensively that the Mavs have publicly acknowledged considering putting Marion on him for longer stretches. A playoff basketball team is actually contemplating allowing their best wing defender to spend fewer minutes guarding Kevin Durant, as crazy as that sounds, because of how well Westbrook has been playing. (It may make that decision easier because Jason Kidd’s incredibly active hands continue to give KD problems, as evidenced by his 338 steals in the first two games.)
If OKC is going to complete the series win over the Mavericks and deal with the likes of the Lakers and Spurs, they’re going to have to win at least a couple of games when KD isn’t playing well. Westbrook and Harden can’t also play an average game or worse and give the Thunder hope for a win. But if the first two games are an indication, they’re as capable as anyone hoped they would be of carrying the load.
And to Westbrook’s credit, he’s keeping his motor revved all the way up at both ends of the floor. Westbrook’s defense often leaves a lot to be desired from one of the most athletic, tough and energetic players in the NBA. The effort isn’t always there. But it sure has been through two games, and the energy is reflected in the rest of the team and in his offensive approach as well. Most importantly, despite the frenetic effort he’s put forth on the defensive end, he’s been able to be measured, patient and calm offensively for most of the series. It’s almost like these young players get better with maturity and it was a little harsh to say his fiery attitude can doom the Thunder, or something crazy like that.
— Despite what it looked like, the Thunder tried a different approach for a game-ending play.
Most of the YouTube videos of Durant’s game-winner in Game 1 start a little to late to see it, but the Thunder had a pretty decent play designed that the Mavs simply defended well, and KD’s improvising saved the day. There are good signs both in the play that was designed, but didn’t work out, and in Durant’s improvising.
The play was designed to get KD the ball on the near-side baseline with a favorable matchup against Ian Mahinmi. Mahinmi can do a decent job defending Durant, but he’s not as good at it as Marion is. If the play worked as designed, KD would have been relatively isolated against Mahinmi where he can make a bunch of plays. Durant could have gone baseline on Mahinmi, gone back to the middle of the floor or floated a fadeaway from near where he caught it, and you have to like KD’s chances either way. Anyone who came to double-team KD at that spot would have left a teammate open in a good spot to score, and Durant has shown the ability to make the right pass at the right time.
Mahinmi just did a good job of denying Durant the ball at that spot, but that’s what good players on good teams do sometimes. What’s encouraging is that the Thunder tried something other than just giving KD the ball near the half-court line and winging it from there. Give credit where credit is due: Even though Mahinmi made a play, OKC isn’t just doing the same old thing at the end of games.
And KD’s improvisation shows what he’s learned through the years about taking that last shot. He had an opportunity to get closer to the basket, and he took it. We’ve all seen the numerous times when he’s content to just create some space behind the arc and take a deep 3-pointer. But he didn’t settle on Saturday. That’s as big of a good sign as the play that was designed in the first place.
— Brooks is showing a magic touch with rotations so far.
How, when and for how long Daequan Cook is going to play, and should be playing, is still an unsettled question, apparently. But other than that, Brooks and the Thunder coaching staff have done an excellent job in making good decisions regarding the rotation.
Increased flexibility and savvy in managing rotations in the playoffs doesn’t mean tinkering. Too much change can be bad for the team’s rhythm. And it’s fair to say that we don’t know how Nazr Mohammed basically taking a week or two off would affect him in a future series, but you’d think an old pro like Mohammed would be able to deal with it. Still, an NBA coach can’t be totally rigid in how he wants to manage his players’ minutes. There has to be some massaging during a series and during a game to coax favorable matchups and outcomes out of your team.
He showed more than a flash of that ability during Game 2 of last year’s West finals with the (in)famous decision to go with Eric Maynor for the entire fourth quarter and sit a struggling Westbrook. But Brooks has continued to show good command of his gut feelings in this year’s series, it has just been in smaller ways. He recognized that Derek Fisher was “on” in Game 2 and extended his minutes, and Fisher rewarded him by getting huge buckets. Going a little bit smaller than usual at the end of the second quarter was also a critical move, as Sefolosha’s extended shift helped limit Terry and protect the Thunder’s lead going into halftime.
The right moves are going to be important as Brooks continues to have to pull out all the stops for effective defense on Dirk and the rest of the Mavericks. But so far, so good. There’s a lot to be encouraged about heading into two games in Dallas, when the Thunder will have to be as sharp as ever to make progress on finishing off the defending champs.