This is not who the Oklahoma City Thunder wanted to see.
They will likely deny it, will avoid saying anything that betrays weakness or insecurity, but of all of their potential first-round opponents, the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks may be the most problematic.
True, the Thunder have the homecourt advantage that they lacked in last season’s Western Conference Finals. Is that supposed to scare Dirk Nowitzki?
Even if Nowitzki cannot find the red-hot shooting touch that he carried through the 2011 Playoffs, the Mavericks are equipped to take advantage of several Thunder weaknesses. In ascending order of concern, those are . . .
3) Two-Man Team
The most reliable path to beating Oklahoma City this season was to let the two Thunder All-Stars have their points while choking off everyone else. Eight of their 19 losses came when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined for 60 or more points.
As long as Serge Ibaka and James Harden didn’t both go for 15 or more points in the same game, allowing Westbrook and Durant to “get theirs” was a reasonable strategy. The Mavericks’ army of statisticians will no doubt have a few suggestions about how best to probe this weakness.
2) Streak Shooting
The Thunder halfcourt offense looks brilliant when Durant, Harden, and the other shooters knock down threes. The Thunder halfcourt offense looks like a pickup game when the perimeter players misfire. Again, Mark Cuban’s staff can do the math. The Thunder shot 32% from beyond the arc in their losses and almost 38% in their wins. There is some chicken-egg dynamic here – were they attempting tougher/less-open threes because they were behind, or were they behind because they attempted tougher/less-open threes? – but it’s still not hard to see some causality.
1) The Mental Game
With apologies to Phil Jackson, the Mavericks were the true Zen Master team of the 2011 postseason. Whether somehow convincing Durant to launch a contested 28-footer on the last possession of a tied game, or using J.J. Barea to scare LeBron James out of the post, Dallas got in its opponents’ heads like few champions we’ve seen.
The Thunder have shown maturity and growth across the board this season, but they remain susceptible to mental lapses. Their mistakes look different from those of many other teams because they tend to be errors of excessive effort, with Russell Westbrook’s blitzkrieg style leading the way.
Refer to last Sunday’s loss in Los Angeles. Metta World Peace’s attempt to end James Harden’s career got all of the attention, but Westbrook was the one who ended up combusting. His adrenaline dial stayed on “Dangerously High” for the entire second half and overtime, resulting in a 3-22 shooting nightmare lowlighted by a dunk attempt that ricocheted high enough to scrape the Lakers’ championship banners.
With one of the wiliest, craftiest veteran lineups in memory lying in wait, Westbrook must maintain an even keel. If he seizes control of the series and dominates Dallas’ undersized, slow backcourt – as he already has recently – he can exorcise this blue demon and march his team onward.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.