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May 24, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Coming Up Short

by Kevin Pelton

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Dallas 112, at Oklahoma City 105 (OT, Dallas leads 3-1)
Pace: 92.7
Offensive Ratings: Dallas 109.9, Oklahoma City 102.2

10 possessions. That's how much of Monday's Game Four between the Dallas Mavericks and the Oklahoma City Thunder remained when James Harden fouled out with 4:33 left to play. Oklahoma City entered the stretch in control, leading by 12 points. All the Thunder had to do to win was be within a point per possession of the Mavericks the rest of the way--a preposterously large difference. Didn't happen. Dallas scored 14 points on its last 10 trips down the floor in regulation, while Oklahoma City managed just two. The Mavericks took all the momentum into overtime and ended up with a 112-105 victory that gives them a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.

Something happened to the Thunder's offense in the last 10 minutes of the game, and while the absence of the playmaking Harden was surely a factor, we've seen this before. You remember that old saying about how the prevent defense in football prevents you from winning? That's how I feel about Oklahoma City's attempt to shorten the game by running down the shot clock. Time and again, the Thunder is playing against both the opposing defense and the shot clock, leading to poor possessions.

On top of this, there is a distinct lack of creativity to the Oklahoma City playbook in late-game situations that we've discussed to the point of repetitiveness. Scott Brooks' favorite call late, the Russell Westbrook-Kevin Durant pick-and-roll, has been effectively neutralized by Dallas' ability to switch the pick. Jason Kidd has shut down the bigger Durant every time, including the steal with 1:01 to go that set up Kidd's go-ahead three-pointer. The ultimate failure of the team's playcalling was the last possession of regulation, which resulted in Durant jacking up a three from several feet beyond the three-point line with Shawn Marion in his face and plenty of time left on the clock.

With the other three players on the court reduced to the point of decoys, the Mavericks can load up defensively on Durant and Westbrook. Both of the Thunder's scores in the extra session came when Dallas brought help and secondary options (Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha) made plays. However, those were two of the three shot attempts the other Oklahoma City players got. Most of the time, the Thunder settled on Durant and Westbrook trying to create out of 1-on-1 situations. While most of the attention for their blown lead will be directed at Westbrook, Durant was scoreless in the last 10 minutes, missing all six of his shot attempts--five of them from beyond the arc. Credit Marion with doing an excellent job of using his size to deny Durant the basketball and force him away from the basket.

Basically, Brooks is failing at the fundamental task of a head coach: putting his players in the best position to succeed. Durant and Westbrook are continually ending up in difficult situations and asked to make something happen. When they do, it looks spectacular, but Oklahoma City can't count on those kind of low-percentage plays as the bedrock of its late-game offense.

It doesn't help that Brooks regularly chooses not to take advantage of opportunities to improve his personnel with offense-defense substitutions. After Harden fouled out, Sefolosha was on the floor for the entire final 9:33. Though Sefolosha was having an excellent offensive game by his standards, the shooting of Daequan Cook would have given the Mavericks more to think about defensively.

The funny thing is that Brooks' stubbornness to change his lineup actually paid off early in Game Four. The Thunder's ineffective starting lineup finally clicked thanks to the unexpected scoring from Sefolosha and a big game from Serge Ibaka (18 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks). Oklahoma City won the battle of the starters by 10 points during the first quarter. The Thunder's starting five made a rare second-quarter appearance and then played Dallas even after halftime.

On the other side of the comeback, the Mavericks' offense late in the game was nearly as impressive as the Thunder's offensive collapse. Dirk Nowitzki scored 12 of Dallas' last 15 points in regulation. Collison did everything possible defensively, but Nowitzki still scored with a hand in his face and a defender draped all over him. Few other players in the league, if any, are capable of that kind of shot making. Nowitzki carried the Mavericks' offense on a night where the rest of the team shot just 37.7 percent from the field, though Kidd (17 points on 5-of-9 shooting) was also a key contributor.

Kidd and Nowitzki were the key figures as Dallas executed without taking a timeout late in regulation. Playing in the flow of the game down two points, Kidd and Nowitzki went to a pick-and-roll that forced Collison to foul Nowitzki and send him to the line for two game-tying free throws. The play allowed the Mavericks to save their final timeout (called by Kidd in a heady play) for a desperation attempt to win in the final second.

As critical to Dallas' comeback was the way the team stepped up on the defensive glass after getting destroyed by the Oklahoma City in the first three-plus quarters. Following Harden's exit, the Thunder had just one offensive rebound in 12 opportunities, a dramatic change from the 19 boards in 35 opportunities Oklahoma City got earlier in the game.

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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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