The youngest team in the NBA playoffs stands four victories from a trip to the Finals. They are thus poised despite spending their last two playoff rounds battling arguably the toughest individual matchups in the Western Conference.
After failing in his initial tete-a-tete with Zach Randolph in the previous round, Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka encountered a new form of torture in his duel with Dirk Nowitzki. Ibaka’s defensive technique was solid, but he looked helpless as Dallas’ star drove past him or shot over him on his way to 16 points in his first 14 minutes of play.
Nowitzki didn’t miss a shot until there were four minutes left in the first half. He finished with 21 points in the first two quarters.
Then he kicked off the third by drawing Ibaka’s fourth foul, banishing the Congo’s proudest import to the bench for the next 10 minutes. He would put up 17 more points in that 12-minute span, including a playoff record-tying 13 of 13 free throws.
For the game, he missed a total of three shots, going 12-15 from the field and setting a postseason record by hitting all 24 of his foul shots.
Nowitzki tormented Ibaka from the same right-side mid-post region where Randolph made his living in the Semifinals. Ibaka, Nick Collison and Co. have probably seen enough 17-footers from that area to haunt them well into the summer.
The good news? Dallas needed every one of Nowitzki’s 48 points. The Thunder were still within six points with one minute remaining, despite extreme difficulty scoring.
Kevin Durant was the lone exception, scoring 17 points in the first half and keeping the Thunder afloat offensively with a combination of long jumpers and majestic coast-to-coast drives. His 94-foot dash to beat the first-quarter buzzer would have made George Gervin proud.
He poured in 23 more points in the second half, single-handedly bringing the Thunder to within single digits with three minutes remaining.
It’s too bad his teammates couldn’t match his level. After his magnificent triple-double in Game 7 against Memphis, Russell Westbrook looked like he was pressing the action in the first half, finishing 1-8 for seven points. Several of his jump shots barely grazed the front rim, while his drives found more resistance against Tyson Chandler than they had against Memphis’ slow-footed Marc Gasol and Randolph.
His first two field goals, both within four feet of the hoop, came 22 minutes apart, as he never adequately countered DeShawn Stevenson’s bulldog aggression or Jason Kidd’s Jedi powers. He finished a ghastly 3-15 from the field, though he did connect on 14 of 18 free throws.
HIs pick-and-roll with Durant, occasionally devastating against the Grizzlies, was oddly ineffective tonight, as Shawn Marion, Stevenson, and Kidd seamlessly switched to crowd him on the perimeter.
Pick Your Poison
Scott Brooks seemingly played into Dallas’ hands by inserting a Mighty Mouse backcourt of Eric Maynor and Nate Robinson at the start of the fourth to match up with Terry and J.J. Barea. The small lineup was effective offensively, but no more able to slow down the Mavericks on defense.
Barea picked up right where he’d left off against the Lakers by putting up 21 points in 16 minutes and scooting effortlessly past everyone who tried to impede his path. His highlight was probably a dribble-drive destruction of Robinson that pushed Dallas’ lead to 16 in the fourth.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.