at Oklahoma City 102, Dallas 99 (Oklahoma City leads 2-0)
Offensive Ratings: Oklahoma City 111.7, Dallas 108.5
The Dallas Mavericks were oh so close to taking a 2-0 lead back down I-35 to Dallas, but that's a cold consolation after two narrow losses in Oklahoma City to start this series.
Thanks to a Vince Carter shotput that banked dead off the backboard and in with 2:17 to play, the Mavericks took the lead to the final minute. After Carter's score, however, the Dallas offense went silent, mustering only a Jason Terry layup the Thunder willingly conceded to protect a three-point lead inside the final 30 seconds.
The Mavericks' veteran players, all of them part of last year's championship team, all of them clutch mavens, were unable to come through with the game on the line. Jason Kidd threw away an entry pass. Dirk Nowitzki missed twice, including a wide-open three-pointer everyone in the building and watching on TV would go down. And Terry's pair of three-pointers to force overtime on the final possession were errant. Such is the fickle nature of small sample sizes.
For awhile, it looked like Dallas might be able to win on defense alone. The Oklahoma City offense was scoreless for a period of 2:29 and went three trips downcourt without so much as a good look at the basket. As it was much of the night, the free throw line was the Thunder's salvation. Kevin Durant drew the Mavericks' fifth team foul when Terry, who switched onto him, played Durant too tightly on the inbound pass. Durant's two foul shots gave Oklahoma City the lead for good and forced Dallas to start intentionally fouling to keep up. The Thunder won without a single field goal in the game's final 4:52, making all eight free throw attempts in that span.
Both teams paraded to the line in a game with a combined 71 free throws (and 65 makes). Take away the two late intentional fouls and Oklahoma City's advantage was just 35-32 in terms of attempts. The Thunder had a larger edge from the field, holding the Mavericks to 41.8 percent shooting and five three-pointers in 23 attempts. Off nights from Carter and Kidd, who shot a combined 4-of-19 from the field, helped offset another big effort from Nowitzki and allow Oklahoma City to survive a poor shooting performance by Durant, who finished 5-of-17 and turned the ball over seven times but made 14 free throws and grabbed 10 rebounds.
From a strategic standpoint, the most interesting element was the two teams downsizing their lineups. Scott Brooks struck first, replacing Serge Ibaka with James Harden with 4:30 left in the first quarter. Rick Carlisle answered by moving Nowitzki in the middle for 15 minutes, taking Brendan Haywood (10) and Brandan Wright (5) largely out of the rotation. Durant played the entire fourth quarter at power forward. It's hard to say either team really benefited from the shift toward smaller units.
Again, Brooks finished the game with Kendrick Perkins on Nowitzki. This time, the Mavericks were ready, and favored getting Perkins on the move rather than isolating Nowitzki. A pick-and-pop led to the open three Nowitzki got late, and the Thunder needed terrific help defense from Serge Ibaka to cut off a Nowitzki drive when he beat Perkins to the hoop as a roll man the next time down. Dallas had the right playcall, but didn't get the desired result. That about sums up the first two games of this series.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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