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2012 NBA Playoffs: Thunder, Mavericks Continue Battle

Aaron Fischman |
May 2, 2012 | 3:37 p.m. PDT

Associate Sports Editor

Despite two hard-fought efforts, Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks find themselves in an 0-2 hole. (Keith Allison/Creative Commons)
Despite two hard-fought efforts, Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks find themselves in an 0-2 hole. (Keith Allison/Creative Commons)
The Oklahoma City Thunder lead the defending champion Dallas Mavericks two games to none, but the series is much closer than that count may indicate. OKC’s two wins have come by a combined four points, and who will win the series is far from certain.

NenaMarie G and Jessica Lantz were gracious enough to join us to discuss this riveting series. NenaMarie G covers the Mavericks on her website, while Lantz has been “Thundering-up” all season long at Free Lantz Sports

Aaron Fischman: Although the Thunder lead the series 2-0, each game has gone down to the final possession. What will it take for the Mavericks to finally get over the hump as they return home? In other words, what are the keys going forward?

NenaMarie G: It is no secret that the Mavericks have been facing all of their demons in the first two games of this series. Playing against a young, talented and energetic team who is driven to improve on its performance from last year is not a flattering foil for any NBA team who has faced significant challenges during the grueling pace of a post-lockout season. That being said, the Mavericks must come home to Dallas and win two games on their home court to change the energy and outlook of this series if they want to make it to the second round. How will they get there? Some people would call these suggestions keys to the game, or in my words “How to Survive Post Season in the NBA…if you really want to play.”

1. Dallas has to improve their shooting percentage against the Thunder. While the team’s shooting ranked 19th during the regular season, for whatever reason it has not shown any significant signs of improvement during Round 1. The Mavericks are currently at 42.7 percent and 33.3 percent from 3-point range compared to the Thunder’s respective marks of 47.1 and 46.6, respectively. Good looks haven’t gone down, as they’ve accumulated enough bricks to build a house. That simply isn’t how games are won. This recommendation isn’t optional. Improving the overall field goal percentage is crucial if this team sincerely wants to move forward during the postseason.

2. Turnovers are currently proving disastrous for the Mavericks. A one-point lead quickly dissolved into a 16-point deficit in the blink of an eye during the second quarter of Game 2. A trained eye can look at the Thunder, and see that their half-court offense is a work in progress. Tightening up the ball movement and limiting those easy transition opportunities will have a huge impact on the Thunder’s offense instead of giving them easy points. 

3. Bench performers for the Mavericks have to show improvement and support their role on the team. With starters working to contain OKC’s primary scorers and keep the ball moving toward their own basket, all players are being pushed to their limits. There simply isn’t time or space for bench performers to be timid, have slow scoring nights or choose a jump shot over an easy drive to the basket. Dallas is a talented team when they can work together on a common goal, but it is easy to see that their core players are getting overworked when bench production doesn’t meet expectations. At this point, those frustrations are tangible both on the scoreboard and to the fans.

NenaMarie G: How does it reflect on the Thunder's team dynamic that these two playoff wins were determined by such a small margin, with so many trips to the FT line?

Jessica Lantz: All season long, the Thunder have relied on clutch play from the team in totality. Despite the focus going to the play of all-stars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, the team really plays as a team. These two games have illustrated just that fact. Durant, the team’s “Kid Clutch,” has shot a less-than-clutch 34.1 percent from the field (15 of 44). 

In Game 1, Serge Ibaka went off for 22 points and as a team, the Thunder sunk 17 of 20 free throw attempts. Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher combined for 24 points on 9 of 11 shooting to add some offense in Game 2. But as alluded to above, free throws are the Thunder’s bread and butter. And when you hit your lines from the stripe at a clip of 37 of 39 in a three-point game, Oklahoma City is going to be a tough team to beat. The Thunder hit six frees in the last minute of Game 2 after the contest was tied at 97. Defense might win championships, but it can also lose them (or at least become a defining factor in a playoff series) when the whistle blows in a hotly contested game.

Fischman: Some are saying that this series is a battle of differing styles, particularly with regard to tempo. To what extent is this true?

Lantz: If you look at this season’s numbers by Basketball-Reference, the average pace of the league (possessions per 48 minutes) is 91.3. The Mavericks come in right above the average with 91.4 possessions per game. The Thunder come in at 93.0. The Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings and Washington Wizards all post a pace that exceeds that of Oklahoma City. These four examples, in particular, illustrate that getting an extra possession or two or three doesn’t necessarily translate to winning basketball games. 

To me, the question of tempo is not what explains this series. If you’re a good team, you’re a good team. Thus, if the game pace is fast or slow, elite teams can adjust adequately. The numbers show a negligible difference between Dallas and Oklahoma City in my estimation. 

Stylistically, the two teams do have obvious differences, particularly on the offensive end of the court. Dallas likes the three and racks up an average of five more assists per game than the Thunder - or at least that was the case in their regular season series. However, in the two playoff games, the Mavericks are actually averaging fewer assists than the Thunder. Another difference comes at the stripe - OKC enjoys success in getting to the line and converting those opportunities, and this has been the case throughout the year. The team leads the league in free throw percentage at 80.6 percent and got to the line more than 26 times per contest in the regular season. In the four regular season games against the Mavs, that number went up to 31 attempts. And thus far in their playoff series, it stands at 29.5 attempts a night. 

Leading Sixth Man of the Year candidate James Harden has gotten off to a great start this postseason. (Keith Allison/Creative Commons)
Leading Sixth Man of the Year candidate James Harden has gotten off to a great start this postseason. (Keith Allison/Creative Commons)

But even with these differences, and many more you can point to, there are obvious similarities that make this matchup an atypical No. 2 vs. No. 7 series. These two teams are evenly matched. Last year’s Western Conference Finals was a five-game affair with every contest decided by less than 10 points and three of the five decided by six points or less - two possessions that went the way of the Mavs in all but one instance. The 3-1 Thunder advantage in 2011-12 could just have easily been 2-2 had it not been for Kevin Durant’s heroics to kick off the year. And now, these two games have come down to last-minute lead changes, last-second shot attempts and a combined four-point differential in favor of the home team. Pretty “even Steven” if you ask me, regardless of tempo and style.

Fischman: How can the Mavericks slow down sixth man-extraordinaire James Harden, who has earned 20 trips to the charity stripe in just two games?

NenaMarie G: Slowing down James Harden seems more like a mission for James Bond than a Dallas Maverick after the first two games. He has proven to be a talented x-factor, just as he was during the regular season and easily slips through the cracks when tensions are running high between other players on the court. While not un-guardable, he definitely uses other players’ distractions to his advantage. My suggestion? Let a savvy old vet like Jason Kidd disrupt his rhythm and show him how to REALLY draw a foul. Currently Harden is exploiting the Mavs’ weaknesses while younger, less experienced players take the PF (personal foul) hit on the stat sheet.

Lantz: A lot has been said in the local media over the past two games about the calls (and non-calls) in the series. To what extent do you think these games have been called 'fairly'? Do you place any blame for the outcome on the refs? Why or why not?

NenaMarie G: In a series where the home team takes 39 trips to the FT line in a single game, the quality of the officiating has been extremely difficult to ignore and the definition of the word “fair” definitely is in the eyes of the beholder. When breaking down the minutiae of a nail-biting close to Game 1 and the intensity of Game 2, I would have made many calls differently myself. There are very dirty tactics being demonstrated by players on both ends of the floor, both physical and verbal. To obtain quality results this simply cannot continue, and if we are expecting absolute peak performance from all players on the court at all times, it is only fair to expect the same from league officials as well.

Speaking from the perspective of someone who watches a game live and gets caught up in the emotion and intensity of the situation, and then puts on the late night DVR recording to pick it apart, there have been several missed calls for both teams. If the games were called 100 percent accurately, we might still be watching Game 2 at this point…but that’s another story in and of itself. There is a high level of physical interaction between the players during the playoffs and what we see on the screen has definitely not translated to what has been demonstrated at the end of the night in black-and-white. You can call it “home cooking” or the ever-present conspiracy theory that many fans blame on David Stern and the league itself, but there is definitely room for improvement on how the calls have come down in these first two games. Recognizing that calling a perfect game is nearly impossible, I’d rate the officials’ accuracy from Games 1 and 2, seven out of 10 points. 

Fischman: Please respond to this Rick Carlisle quote after Game 2: "It's playoff basketball. It's physical. We don't like the cheap shots when they give them and they don't like the cheap shots if we give them. That's the nature of competition. I love hard play, clean, competitive playoff series. You throw the ball up and may the best team win. The dirty bullshit's got to stop. We don't want anybody getting hurt out there." To what extent is Carlisle right that the cheap shots from both teams need to stop? Can we reasonably suggest intensely physical play throughout the remainder of the series? 

Lantz: I don’t want anyone to get hurt either. After seeing the Metta World Peace elbow to James Harden at the end of the season, I am not wishing harm to any player on the court, or the field, or anywhere. 

But - what cheap shots? No really, I think if you start talking about cheap shots, you have to look elsewhere than the Dallas/Oklahoma City series. Yes, there has been some intense physicality from both teams. But I’m going with that first line of Carlisle’s quote - it’s playoff basketball. And his star, Dirk Nowitzki, whom these alleged dirty calls were against seemed to echo the same sentiments after Monday’s game. In regards to the scuffle on the hardwood and ensuing double-technicals on Dirk and Perk, Nowitzki said, “I don’t think that play was anything special. It’s just the playoffs, two teams going at it. It was just a hard play.”

Play on, I say. Play on. 

More series updates: Lakers vs. Nuggets, Grizzlies vs. Clippers and Spurs vs. Jazz.

Contact Aaron via email or Twitter.



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