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May 26, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Mistakes and Misfortune

by Kevin Pelton

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at Dallas 100, Oklahoma City 96 (Dallas wins 4-1)
Pace: 87.8
Offensive Ratings: Dallas 113.4, Oklahoma City 109.9

These are the plays the Oklahoma City Thunder will spend the long offseason thinking about.

  • OKC 94, DAL 90 - 3:19 left: The Thunder isolates Kevin Durant against Jason Kidd. Durant gets a step, forcing Dirk Nowitzki to help. Durant kicks to Eric Maynor, who gets off a long three-pointer with Nowitzki flying out on him. It hits off the front rim. Russell Westbrook's tip doesn't connect either.
  • OKC 94, DAL 90 - 2:39 left: James Harden rebounds and advances into a pick-and-roll. Driving against Tyson Chandler, Harden loses the ball out of bounds for a turnover.
  • OKC 94, DAL 92 - 2:12 left: After a Shawn Marion score, Durant isolates against Kidd. Using his length, he pulls up for a shot just at the edge of the key. It rims around and out.
  • OKC 94, DAL 92 - 1:47 left: Westbrook is fouled coming up with another offensive rebound to give the Thunder a second chance. He gets the ball after the stoppage, and drives off a pick-and-roll. Seeing an open Nick Collison under the basket, Westbrook passes through traffic only to have it intercepted and stolen.
  • OKC 94, DAL 92 - 1:36 left: Oklahoma City seemingly gets a break when Dirk Nowitzki misses an open three off a sideline out-of-bounds play. Westbrook is there for the rebound, but can't control it. The ball gets back to Nowitzki, who doesn't miss twice. His three gives Dallas the lead.
  • DAL 95, OKC 94 - 1:14 left: Trailing for the first time in the final quarter, the Thunder tries a Harden pick-and-roll. When Dallas' defense thwarts the first option, Maynor ends up going one-on-one against Nowitzki and misses off balance in the paint. Trying to get another shot, Collison throws the ball back out. Marion recovers and goes the other direction for a dunk plus an ill-advised Durant foul to extend the lead.
  • DAL 98, OKC 96 - 0:39 left: Needing a stop to stay in the game, Oklahoma City plays tough defense to force a Nowitzki miss. Durant misses a boxout on Marion, who is able to get enough of the loose ball that it leaks back out to Kidd. The Thunder has no choice but to foul and the game is effectively over.

Change any play in that sequence and it's possible the series is heading back to Oklahoma City for Game Six. That's how thin the margin is between victory and defeat in this postseason. The Thunder fell victim to both bad fortune and its own mistakes in a series-ending loss.

It's difficult to blame Scott Brooks' coaching for what happened down the stretch. Oklahoma City's offense had variety and a reasonable amount of movement. There were good shots in there, and the turnovers were not because of stagnant offense. Westbrook made a mistake on his turnover and Maynor's decision to go one-on-one was questionable at best, but this was not a complete offensive collapse like we've seen in the past. At the other end, the costly mistakes were both Durant's: the foul, which turned it into a two-possession game; and the missing boxout.

Both Nowitzki's three and Marion's runout, however, were cases of the ball bouncing the Mavericks' way. Westbrook easily could have secured the defensive board (and there was some contact with Chandler, though I don't think it merited a loose-ball foul), in which case the Thunder takes possession with just under a minute and a half left and the lead. Collison's pass, meanwhile, carried some risk but ended up with the worst possible scenario in terms of creating a transition opportunity at the other end.

That's the way it goes in the playoffs. What Dallas has done over the last two series is consistently put itself in position to win by playing well over the first three and a half quarters and executing down the stretch. That the Mavericks have won virtually every close game in that span (Game Two of this series being the exception) couldn't really have been predicted. It happens sometimes.

As opposed to the last series, where the Los Angeles Lakers quit in an elimination game, a young Oklahoma City team showed tremendous fight. Westbrook provided contagious energy at both ends of the floors and Brooks made timely adjustments that forced the Mavericks to counter. Most notably, Brooks took the basketball out of Westbrook's hands for extended stretches, with Harden and Maynor sharing playmaking duties. Harden responded with a brilliant all-around game, scoring 23 points on 16 shooting possessions and handing out six assists. Playing off the ball, Westbrook used his athleticism by cutting hard to the basket to be on the receiving end of Harden's feeds and crashing the glass for four offensive rebounds. While the switch did not translate into a victory, it may have given Brooks a template for how to make use of his guards next season.

The other change Brooks made was going small much of the second half. Collison served as the team's lone big man for the final 14 minutes, with Durant sliding to power forward. (He and Westbrook both playd the entire second half.) At first, the move created problems and Rick Carlisle had to answer by putting Nowitzki in the middle. Having three shooters around Westbrook opened up the floor for the Thunder, but the move also severely compromised Oklahoma City's interior defense. Jose Barea took advantage, getting to the rim repeatedly.

The Mavericks went back to their more traditional lineup for the stretch run, producing one of the oddest matchups you'll ever see: Nowitzki defending Maynor, who is nine inches shorter. I don't know if this was Carlisle's intention, but one of my favorite George Karl coaching moves back in his Seattle days was to create a mismatch for a poor offensive player, causing the opposing offense to run things through a secondary option. That happened with Maynor at times late in the game.

Ultimately, the small lineup did not work: The Thunder was outscored by eight in the fourth quarter. I'm not sure any other group would have done better. As close as this series was throughout, Dallas was the better team because the Mavericks had more answers and created more questions. Kidd and Marion were terrific at the defensive end, making life difficult for Durant. He finished with 23 points on as many shooting possessions. We probably haven't given Kidd enough credit for what he did defensively in this series while matching up with two of the league's best players, both of them nearly young enough to be his kids. Durant has five inches and even more length on Kidd, yet virtually never scored on him one-on-one following a switch.

This wasn't Nowitzki's best game of the series, which means he only scored 26 points on 19 shooting possessions (albeit with five turnovers). Nowitzki ended up averaging 32.2 points over the five games with a True Shooting Percentage near 70 percent. For this point in the postseason, facing a defense that has emerged as one of the league's best, that's virtually unthinkable. Watching Nowitzki in the playoffs has been a treat, and fortunately we've got at least four more games to enjoy him.

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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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