A perfect metaphor
Final Score: Mavs 103, Thunder 93
Points: Durant with 28, Butler with 21
Rebounds: Tyson Chandler with 10, Ibaka with 9
Assists: Kidd with 10, Westbrook with 7
You could probably subtitle this post with this image:
This game will probably trickle down the memory hole as one that got away. With Dirk going down early in the game due to a twisted knee, the Thunder seemed poised to take advantage of an offensively short-handed team that relied heavily on the 3-point shot. The Mavs still had shot makers like Shawn Marrion, Caron Butler, and Jason Terry to provide some offense, but over the long haul it was realistic to think that this group would not be able to provide a high octane offensive outburst that they might have if Dirk were playing. If the Thunder could maintain their defensive focus and play them even, the odds were good that the Thunder could pull it out.
The surprising and yet frustrating thing was, that is more or less what happened. As I predicted (not a difficult prediction) the Thunder allowed the Mavs to get out to a quick start, getting 34 in the 1st. The Mavs shot 5-10 from 3-point range in the quarter, and were on the brink of opening things up big when the Thunder began to reassert themselves. Not coincidentally, the Thunder’s focus heightened when Harden came into the game and began to do what he’s been showing us these past few games. The Thunder ended the 1st on a little 7-0 run to close th deficit to five, and things were looking promising.
Over the next two quarters, the Thunder followed the script nicely. They won each of those quarters, first to tie things up at the half (off a clutch 3-ball by Maynor) and took the lead by two at the end of the third. It was a remarkably similar performance to the first game the two teams played. Neither team was burning up the twine, but they kept things competitive, with neither team running out to more than a four to six point lead until the fateful 4th. Even then, the Thunder played a strong defensive game from there on out. Marrion got inside for a few finishes, but other than that everything else was from the perimeter (Chandler held to seven). I was encouraged to see how the Thunder were hanging in the game. They were patient when they had to be, physical when called to be, and with a strong 4th, their trademark this year, they should have sealed up win #22.
But then, that pesky diagram:
If you aren’t familiar, this is a diagram of a basic zone defense. Once again, the Thunder completely fell apart trying to deal with attacking the zone. Dallas, possibly looking at the Suns’ positive outcome in applying it to the Thunder, put it out there in the 4th and dared the Thunder to deal with it. Once again the Thunder failed miserably, only scoring 12 in the final quarter.
The zone, utilized more often in college (especially by Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orangemen), works so well because most college teams do not possess more than 1-2 exceptional outside shooters, nor players that have the patience to deal with it. However in the pros, the theory goes, the zone will fall apart because most everyone on the team can hit an open 15-footer. Generally, this is true. The Thunder, while not a great 3-point shooting team, have a host of players that have no problem facing up and knocking down that open shot. However, every team will struggle collectively from the perimeter at times.
Did Dallas see the Thunder slipping, and then go straight to the zone? I don’t know. Regardless whether it was fortuitous timing or more strategic, the Mavs threw out their zone D perfectly, and the Thunder did not know how to deal with it when their shots stopped falling. They either rushed the first shot in a soft spot they came to, or they plunged into the lane, where three Mavs defenders were waiting. The Thunder did not make a field goal until under six minutes were left to go. And even then, it was not too late (only a four point deficit) but the Thunder simply did not know how to generate offense. They even failed to get to the line, with their last free throw attempt occurring with nine minutes to go.
The defensive template is out there. It is now incumbent on the staff and players to learn to deal with it.
A few final random notes:
- Westbrook has cooled considerably from his torrid start this season. Part of it has been intentional, as he has refocused his energies on playing set-up man now that Durant has regained his shooting touch. Problematically though, it may have removed him a degree too far from the flow of the offense. He has struggled both in his outside shot as well as his finishing in the last few games. For a guy whose mid-range jumper was near automatic and had been lauded early on for his strong finishes at the rim, it is puzzling. Almost all of Westbrook’s jumpers front-rimmed the iron. I don’t know if he’s having any minor injury issues, but he doesn’t seem to have the same elevation on his shot. Maynor has played admirably of late, so it might be good to lower Westbrook’s minutes a tad until he regains some lift in his legs.
- Tyson Chandler can really drive you nuts as a viewer, but as an asset, he’s tremendous. He’s a guy who came into the league as the last bastion of the failed experiment that was high schoolers entering the League early. He’s made millions, much of it before he really deserved to. And still, after nine years in the League, he’s still a high energy guy who will dunk, block, rebound, take charges, and play with an enthusiasm that fires up everyone.
- Jason Kidd just keeps motoring along. In case you missed it, he was one rebound shy of a triple-double. We certainly take it for granted as disinterested viewers, but if you watch Kidd with interest, his game is incredibly powerful, even at an advanced age. Watch him run the break – he receives the outlet or grabs the board himself, and is off and running. For only about 2 seconds. He’ll take two to three dribbles, and then the ball is gone. You won’t see much coast-to-coast from Kidd; he understands that passing is the best way to get the ball up the court fast, and if you don’t close on him quick, the ball is gone and the Mavs are getting another layup. Here is one of my favorite articles written about Jason Kidd, penned by the late, great Ralph Wiley, along with a sweet quote (emphasis mine):
Jason can do everything related to the game — running, passing out of the halfcourt set, passing on the run, extemporaneously jazz-passing, rebounding, 3-D drive capability, the deep shot, can face up on D, can come off and double, great hands, and, the Unseen Thing, his synapses fire in the currents of the game (in English, he sees the game as it’s happening, and thus can dictate what happens next, making it seem as if he has precognition). Jason Kidd is the only NBA player who would be right at home in the “Matrix” trilogy. He’d make Morpheus, Neo and Trinity better. Especially chatty Morpheus. Jason would make him shut up and just play.
If ever you doubt Kidd’s credentials, just keep in mind that he led the NJ Nets to the finals TWICE.
It was a tough game, and the Mavs are a superior team. The Thunder will get one more shot against the Mavs this year, on January 6 in Dallas. We do know this: the Thunder can stay with them. What we will learn is whether the Thunder can gain some more veteran experience to deal with the myriad of things that the Mavs already know, and next time, finish what they start.
And because we always have some silver linings:
Next game: vs the Nets on Wednesday, December 29 at 8:00PM EST