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May 18, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Unparalleled Efficiency

by Kevin Pelton

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at Dallas 121, Oklahoma City 112 (Dallas leads 1-0)
Pace: 89.6
Offensive Ratings: Dallas 134.0, Oklahoma City 125.6

So it's safe to say there was no rust. Nine days after finishing off the Los Angeles Lakers by making a playoff-record 20 three-pointers, the Dallas Mavericks managed to post an even more efficient offensive performance in their victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder to start the Western Conference Finals. No, the Mavericks weren't quite as hot from beyond the arc, but they made up for it with 34 free throws in 36 attempts, allowing them to score an incredible four points for every three trips down the floor.

Most of those free throws came from the unstoppable Dirk Nowitzki. It was a performance for the ages by Nowitzki, who went to work against a series of Oklahoma City defenders. The Thunder started, as expected, with young Serge Ibaka. Ibaka was not disciplined enough in the matchup, falling for Nowitzki's up fakes. When Nowitzki had Ibaka in the air, he was able to draw fouls and get to the line. Then Nowitzki did the same to the more experienced Nick Collison. And the overmatched Kevin Durant. And Thabo Sefolosha. And James Harden.

In total, Nowitzki drew 16 fouls - five on Ibaka, three on Sefolosha, two apiece on Collison, Durant and Russell Westbrook (one of them intentional in the final minute) and one on each of James Harden and Kendrick Perkins. Those translated into 24 free throw attempts, of which Nowitzki made ... 24, the most without a miss in NBA playoff history.

When the Thunder did not foul, Nowitzki mostly had his way. Late in the game, Ibaka was able to defend under control against Nowitzki isolations with the shot clock running down. No worries for Dallas. Nowitzki simply rose over Ibaka and knocked down his trademark rainbow jumpers. Nowitzki made 12 of his 15 shot attempts from the field. Add it up and Nowitzki's .939 True Shooting Percentage was the best in a playoff outing with 45 points or higher in the past two decades. Here's the top five dating back to 1991, thanks to Basketball-Reference.com:

Player             Tm     Opp     Date   FGA  FTA  Pts    TS%
-------------------------------------------------------------
Dirk Nowitzki     DAL vs. OKC   5/17/11   15   24   48   .939
Vince Carter      TOR vs. PHI   5/11/01   29    3   50   .825
Paul Pierce       BOS vs. PHI   5/03/02   25    7   46   .819
Steve Nash        PHO  @  DAL   5/15/05   28    4   48   .806
Charles Barkley   PHO  @  GSW   5/04/94   31    9   56   .801

For most of the night, Oklahoma City defended Nowitzki one-on-one. The problem is, when the Thunder did bring a second defender, Nowitzki was able to make the right play and find open teammates. The dagger shot, a three-pointer by Jason Terry in the final minute, came off a feed by a driving Nowitzki. He had four assists, a number that might have been higher had Peja Stojakovic been on. Stojakovic missed five of his six three-point attempts, but Terry was 4-of-8 beyond the arc.

The rest of the Mavericks' offense was provided by Barea, who continues to play with confidence and attack the basket with fearless abandon. To that, Barea added hot shooting from the perimeter, including a pair of three-pointers. He scored 21 points in 16 minutes and was nearly as efficient as Nowitzki, needing just 12 shot attempts and three free throw tries.

After a poor first quarter, Dallas was about as strong on offense as possible the rest of the way, scoring 101 points in the last 36 minutes. Yet Oklahoma City was still within striking distance down the stretch because the hidden storyline of this game was how effective the Thunder's offense was. Other than the second quarter, Oklahoma City got what it wanted on offense, led by a Nowitzki-lite performance from Kevin Durant. Durant took 19 free throws in his own right, but what really stood out was his playmaking. Durant handed out five assists and did an excellent job of finding Ibaka as the roll man on the pick-and-roll. Ibaka scored 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting.

The game's tight whistle extended to both ends, and the Thunder attempted 43 total free throws to pad its efficiency numbers. The trips to the line were a saving grace for Westbrook, who was unable to finish at the rim against heavy defensive pressure. Such was the case against Dallas in the regular season as well, but not to this extent. Westbrook shot 3-of-15 overall and 1-of-10 outside of five feet. Durant guaranteed postgame that Westbrook would do better in Game Two, and as good as Dallas' defensive strategy is against Westbrook, that will almost certainly be the case.

The Mavericks' answer might be to use more zone defense. It was very effective in the second quarter, allowing Rick Carlisle to keep Barea and Stojakovic in the game despite their defensive limitations. For whatever reason, Dallas went away from the zone after halftime. The more teams see of it, the more effective they are, so Carlisle might have wanted to tuck it away for a later point in the series. If so, the gamble nearly cost him when Oklahoma City rallied to get back in the game. But ultimately the Thunder could not find enough offense to match Nowitzki and the Mavericks.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Playoff Preview (05/17)
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Playoff Prospectus (05/16)
Next Column >>
Playoff Prospectus (05/20)
Next Article >>
Looking Ahead (05/19)

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