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May 20, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Driven by the Bench

by Kevin Pelton

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Oklahoma City 106, at Dallas 100 (Series tied 1-1)
Pace: 84.5
Offensive Ratings: Oklahoma City 126.3, Dallas 117.6

During the fourth quarter of a game in the Western Conference Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder's starting lineup combined for six points. Usually, that would seem to indicate an offensive disaster of Bulls-Heat proportions, but not so this time. The four Thunder reserves who played virtually the entire final period carried Oklahoma City to a series-tying win over the Dallas Mavericks.

We've talked at length about the importance of Nick Collison and James Harden, and they loomed large again. Collison hardly shut down Dirk Nowitzki, who got 16 of his 29 points in the fourth, but he made Nowitzki work to get free and largely kept him off the free throw line. Collison actually had a bigger impact at the offensive end, where he did an excellent job of dealing with Dallas' strategy to trap using his man. Collison was fouled twice attacking the rim after being left alone, and his pair of free throws with 47 seconds left--moments after two costly misses--helped keep the Mavericks at bay.

It was Harden, not Kevin Durant, who powered the Thunder's stretch offense. His matchup with the smaller Jason Terry allowed Harden to get off shots with the clock running down in addition to creating for teammates out of the pick-and-roll. There was a little good fortune involved in Harden's buzzer-beating pull-up, but he also knocked down a pair of important three-pointers en route to 10 points in the final period and 23 in the game.

That Collison and Harden were in the game late is hardly worth noting. That's not true of Eric Maynor, who usually (though not always during the regular season) gives way to Russell Westbrook by the midway point of the fourth quarter. This time around, Scott Brooks decided to roll with a lineup that was having success. The decision said a lot less about Westbrook (who was far more effective offensively in Game Two, knocking down the midrange jumper Dallas is daring him to shoot) and more about Maynor and the second unit as a group.

Maynor really picked things up at the defensive end, keeping Jose Barea out of the paint. Barea hit three triples, but Brooks will certainly live with those shots if they mean Barea is unable to break down the defense and set up superior shooters. On offense, Maynor attacked the smaller Barea out of the pick-and-roll, exposing that Barea's size is an issue beyond just defending the post. Maynor scored 13 points in 20 minutes, and lest this be made into a contrast with the "selfish" Westbrook, note he handed out just one assist in that span while attempting nine shots. Maynor was making the best decision, and on this night that meant shooting the basketball.

Lastly, there's Daequan Cook, who got the chance to play at small forward because Oklahoma City went small. Cook bounced back from a shooting slump by making all three of his shot attempts, including a pair of three-pointers. Brooks drew up a terrific play to get Cook free after a timeout. He trailed a Durant curl, ending up all alone when the defense naturally followed Durant.

Going small gave the Thunder better floor spacing on offense, and the team was able to make it work on defense. Durant did just enough to keep bigger Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler off the glass, making the tradeoff worthwhile. Look for more smallball from Oklahoma City the rest of the series, especially if a limited Kendrick Perkins continues to have a tough time dealing with Chandler's athleticism.

For Dallas, the outside shots that powered a seven-game playoff winning streak finally stopped falling. The Mavericks shot 9-of-27 from three-point range, including 2-of-8 in the fourth quarter. Without the outside shots, Dallas had no scoring besides Nowitzki. After Terry replaced Barea with 5:50 to go, Nowitzki was the only Mavericks player to make a field goal. (DeShawn Stevenson added a pair of free throws). Terry missed all four of his shots in the final period, and Kidd and Stevenson were also shut out from the field.

The Dallas offense is going to be fine. Rick Carlisle's adjustments need to come at the other end of the floor. The Thunder did a much better job against the Mavericks' zone--putting more shooters on the floor helped--forcing Dallas to match up. Oklahoma City was able to exploit either Barea or Terry, and there isn't an obvious solution to that. The Mavericks could be strong defensively across the board by playing Stevenson and Shawn Marion on the wing, but those lineups don't provide enough shooting or scoring. Moving Terry on to the point guard to put Kidd on Harden would allow the Thunder to force switches by running pick-and-rolls with Durant setting the screen. Dallas willingly switched them in Game Two because Kidd did such an excellent job defending Durant.

Carlisle should do more than hope that an unhappy Westbrook sinks the Oklahoma City offense. Between now and Game Three, you'll hear about Westbrook's response to sitting the fourth quarter roughly 48,000 times. It's an important aspect of this series, sure, but not worth the saturation coverage it has already drawn--especially since all we have is speculation. Instead, the focus belongs on a group of Thunder reserves that stepped up and made the difference in Game Two.

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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 Slow Process (05/20)
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Playoff Prospectus (05/18)
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Playoff Prospectus (05/22)
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Premium Article Change at the Top (05/20)

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