First Impressions Game 1: Mavs 121, OKC 112
The Oklahoma City Thunder list of eligible players was not long enough. The OKC playbook of coach Scott Brooks was not thick enough. There were not enough strategies and there was not enough personnel able to exist on the same plane with the brilliant Dirk Nowitzki. The Dallas Mavericks opened the Western Conference Finals with a 121-112 win against the Thunder on Tuesday at the American Airlines Center with The UberMan breezing to 48 points while knocking out an endless array of tomato cans along the way.
"I just kept attacking,'' said the Mavs' MVP. "My teammates were feeding me the ball and we got some matchups with smaller guys and were able to take advantage.''
Smaller guys. Larger guys. Forwards. Centers. Guards. Double-teams. Fronting. Fouling.
He was "able to take advantage.''
OKC started with springy Serge Ibaka. Dirk got him into immediate foul trouble. OKC then tried scrappy Nick Collison, who soon joined Ibaka in whistle prison, both those designated Dirk-guarders getting four fouls by intermission. Kevin Durant took a turn, but kept putting his hands on Dirk in places the refs do not allow and picked up two fouls in, like, five seconds. Thabo Sefolosha tried it. He was assessed three fouls on a handful of possessions. James Harden got a fruitless shot. Kendrick Perkins got an embarrassing one. The Thunder tried some conventional double-teams, then tried to bring guard Russell Westbrook on a sneak attack from behind. Sefolosha once tried to front Dirk, almost as if he had decided to try it on his own, a "why-the-heck-not?'' shot.
Nowitzki kept setting up at the right elbow, backing in, backing in … if OKC didn't foul him, he unleashed spin moves to the rim or his unstoppable One-Legged Euro Lean-Back. … and he made 12-of-15 from the field.
If OKC did foul him, he loped to the line to make 24-of-24, setting a Dallas record for free throws made in a playoff game.
"We've got to do a better job on him,'' Brooks said of Dirk. "We definitely will come back and make some adjustments.''
But what is left to adjust to?
Worth noting: On a normal night, Durant coming up with 40 points on 10-of-18 shooting on his biggest stage as a pro would be the lead story. But Nowitzki remains the better player (hey, when KD does stuff like this for 11 straight years, they can be considered even). And Dallas remains the better team – at least on this night, when Dirk benefitted from plenty of assistance from two other guys who somehow seemed unguardable, smallish backup guards Jason Terry and J.J. Barea.
That tandem – Jet doing so much of his damage as a perimeter weapon and Barea utilizing the pick-and-roll to befuddle OKC inside -- combined for 45 points. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City's other budding superstar and second-leading scorer Russell Westbrook contributed precious little to the cause as a shooter and as a defender. He got enough trips to the free-throw line (a Thunder specialty) to get his 20 points. But he made just 3-of-15 shots. Oh, and while Jet scored 24 and JJB scored 21, the entire OKC bench managed to combine for just 22. So Jason Terry's boast about single-handedly "outperforming'' the other team's bench was realized.
The Thunder deserve some credit for remaining in the game even while it had the "feel'' of a lopsided decision. And maybe, with "adjustment'' to Nowitzki, they can do more than temporarily remain in contention. The Mavs relied on Nowitzki in the first half as he made eight of nine shots, and by the end of the third quarter, Dallas had reached 90. … with Dirk scoring 17 points in the quarter, 13 of those at the line.
The Thunder got the lead to single-digits in the fourth, but solutions for Dirk were not forthcoming … and suddenly there were no solutions for the 5-10 Barea, either. In addition to feeding Nowitzki on the right wing, the Mavs unveiled a two-man game featuring Dirk and Barea. On the pick-and-pop, Thunder defenders felt obliged to stick with Nowitzki, freeing the fearless Barea to roam inside for layups. JJB contributed 12 points in a seven-minute span.
And when it was time to execute in the clutch, the Mavs – with so much experience at this level and the eight days of rest leading up to this game, time well-spent fine-tuning the plan – did what they do best: Jason Kidd at the throttle. The ball going through Nowitzki, who nailed back-to-back jumpers. Through Dirk again a third time, on this possession getting an assist on a corner 3 to Jet that made it 119-110 with 28 seconds left.
And then, finally, the inbounds to Dirk, the intentional foul from OKC, and Nowitzki going to the line one more time, to get to 48.
The DallasBasketball.com research team is scurrying to answer questions about the most points scored on the fewest misses. From what we can find so far, in the last 20 years:
In the regular season, with zero misses, Gary Payton scored 32 in 1995; with one miss, Ced Ceballos scored 40 in 1993.
In the playoffs: with zero misses, Yao scored 24 in 2009; with one miss, Yao scored 33 in 2005 (against the Mavs); with two misses, Dirk scored 36 against the Spurs in 2010; and now, with misses, there is Dirk with 48.
Maybe that is some comfort to the Thunder, who tried everything and everyone and got no results: There have been few times a shooter has been in the same realm of explosive efficiency in a playoff game that Nowitzki was in Tuesday … but when such a thing has happened before, there is a chance the guy who did it was also named "Nowitzki.''
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