The Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday night for their league-best ninth road win. The most compelling storylines are below.
The More Things Change . . .
It is impossible to watch a Thunder-Mavericks clash in 2012 without thinking of the bloodbath the two teams endured in the 2011 Western Conference Finals. Tonight’s home team was clearly not last season’s Dallas Mavericks, not with the wispy Ian Mahinmi starting in Tyson Chandler’s place, or Delonte West’s tattooed neck replacing J.J. Barea’s close-cropped dome.
The most obvious difference lay in the shift from The Unguardable Dirk Nowitzki (2011 Playoffs Edition) to Mortal and Guardable Dirk Nowitzki. This version’s knee troubles appear to have slowed him enough that Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, who Dirk torched last spring, had little trouble staying in front of him.
Jason Terry remained as conscience-free as ever, repeatedly finding openings for the dagger threes and difficult jumpers that buried the Thunder last May, and even bottling up Kevin Durant at the top of the Dallas zone defense.
Durant remains bottle-up-able because while he and Westbrook are brilliant individual performers and work together reasonably well, they don’t pose enough of a passing threat to force defenses to worry about the other three players in blue. That was painfully apparent when Dallas set up in its deceptive matchup zone, which swallows up isolation basketball.
The Half-Empty Glass . . .
After his worst game of the season on Monday, James Harden appeared still mired in his puzzling funk tonight. When he entered the game with five minutes left in the first quarter, he skulked to the side on offense like the unathletic kid in gym class.
He seemed to recover in the second quarter, attacking the basket to draw fouls and drop in twisting layups. His results were still uneven, as when he took his trademark looping drive at the hoop only to have Delonte West reject the shot, or found himself unable to beat Vince Carter off the dribble, but he was attacking like the Harden who emerged as the Thunder’s best performer in last year’s playoffs. Even on a poor shooting night, his passing gave the Thunder offense an element of movement it otherwise lacks.*
*Except for the fourth-quarter possession when he numbly held the ball as the 24-second clock expired, resulting in the world’s most avoidable shot clock violation.
. . . and the Half-Full Glass
This blog has tracked Russell Westbrook’s recent growth with an approving eye, but needed a stronger word than “approving” tonight after watching him punish Dallas defenders with a dazzling array of drives. His ball control and touch on difficult layups was breathtaking, and he drove to the basket in efficient straight lines no matter who stood in his way.
He then took a page out of Terry’s book in the deciding moments, pulling up for a game-clinching three-pointer with just under a minute remaining to finally end the Dallas threat.
Serge Ibaka made an equally emphatic statement by swatting nine Dallas shots, erasing some memories of how Nowitzki tormented him nine months ago.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.