THE TOP STORY: Coming into Tuesday night's Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals between the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder, one of the biggest questions was how Dallas would adjust in returning from eight off-days. What we didn't know was that it was a trick question. The team may have shown a little rust, but this team also has Dirk Nowitzki.
If you were expecting to see some rust, some hints of being out of synch, and we may have seen that, hidden beneath the comforting blanket of brilliance that was Dirk, as the rest of the Mavs hit only 4-of-15 shots in the first quarter, good for only 26.7 percent.
A small hint of burnt orange rust, perhaps?
"I thought Dirk was pretty good tonight," OKC coach Scott Brooks said with a chuckle … a chuckle that said more than most words can strive to.
Just a couple of brief sounds rumbled up and out of the throat, but they stood for so much more. They seemed to moan in exasperation of having been caught beneath the hammer Nowitzki brought down. It echoed the countless paths traced in search of something, someone that could so much as slow down the Mavs superstar.
You could hear the pain thrust forward by the vision of Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha coming up lacking in their attempts to defend Dirk … as well as a second wave of helpless defenders, including Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, that could fare no better.
It was simply a chuckle, but you could almost see the ghosts of Game 1 dancing on its back, adding another bruise with each brutal step.
"Well, I was really looking to shoot early and really was able to get my rhythm," Dirk said, "made the first couple of shots and that is always big for a shooter and after that I just kept attacking."
The UberMan went 4-of-4 out of the gate for ten points in the first four minutes of the game, and only picked up steam as the night went on. To put it into context, those ten points matched his low for a quarter, duplicated by his ten in the fourth.
Dirk finished with 48 points on only 15 field-goal attempts.
Think about that.
This means he averaged 3.2 points for every attempt he took. Not for every make … for every attempt.
His final numbers were 12-of-15 shooting, and a record-setting 24-of-24 from the free-throw line, to total 48 points, six rebounds, four assists, four blocks (yes, four blocks) and only two turnovers.
In the third quarter alone, Dirk had 17 points on 2-of-3 shots, but went 13-of-13 from the line.
Dirk set an NBA playoff record by making 24 free throws without a miss; these makes also set a career and franchise-high.
Those 24 made free throws also come in second in playoff history to only Bob Cousy's 30 makes in 1953 … and it took four overtimes for him to reach that number.
By making 13 free throws in the third period, Dirk tied Michael Jordan for the playoff record for free-throws made in a quarter, a record he also tied in the fourth quarter of Game 1 against Portland.
"That's part of his greatness – that he's so good, in efforts to prevent him from getting the ball, he draws a lot of fouls," Carlisle said. "When you get to the bonus, he's going to make 24 of 24."
One last possible sign of rust: Dallas scored at least 31 points in every quarter except the first, when they posted just 20.
Dirk says he was in the gym pretty much every night during the eight days off ... and that's how a guy goes from "rust'' to "rest'' to "records.''
KIDD KEEPS 'EM LAUGHIN': He's a big fan ...
MEET 'JJ BURRITO': Can we officially say it's time that the basketball community needs to know how to pronounce Barea's name? We thought he'd earned that right against the Lakers, only to hear continue to be mispronounced prior to this series.Say it with us: Bah-Ray-Uhh (even if not phonetically spelled correctly, this should get you to where you need to go). Barea set a playoff career-high with 22 points in the final game against the Lakers, and he showed no sign of a letdown in Game 1 against the Thunder by scoring 21, including 12 straight points for Dallas in the fourth quarter, almost single-handedly denying OKC the chance to make up ground. His final stats: 21 points, 8-of-12 field goals, 2-of-3 from deep … but only one assist. We certainly don't mean to take anything away from what was a great performance, but once a heat-check three missed, the Mavs were left with an offense that appeared slightly out of rhythm, that had given an unstoppable Dirk only one field-goal attempt in the first nine minutes of the final quarter, and had actually been outscored by OKC in the period. We love the 21 points and the fearlessness from Mr. Universe, but we wouldn't be upset if a couple more assists found there way to the boxscore as well … yes, we're that greedy … and perhaps expectations have raised that much. On a side note, has JJ Barea quietly evolved into exactly what we were all hoping Roddy Beaubois would be at this point? "(Barea) did a good job of getting into the paint," Russell Westbrook said. "That's his game." He burrowed through the defense at will against Los Angeles, and found his way into the paint with ease here. He even hit 2-of-3 attempts behind the 3-point line. When the Thunder went "mini" to counter him with Nate Robinson, he responded by crossing-over the former dunk champion, leaving him off-balance, but still in place in his wake. One-on-one, pick-and-pops with Dirk, JJB had it all going ...except the proper sounding out of his surname.
Now let's go bilingual ...
JET OUTPERFORMS THE ENTIRE ... WELL, YOU KNOW:Another player that didn't seem to carry much rust on his still shining wings was Jason Terry.
He finished with 24 points by hitting 8-of-16 shots, including 4-of-8 from deep, and added two assists and a block.
"This was a big game for us and we needed to win this one after the long layoff," Terry said. "People wanted to know how we were going to respond and we started a little slow, and then in the fourth quarter it caught up with us a little bit and we had a chance to put them away in the fourth but our defense let us down a little bit, so we're going to continue to watch film."
Despite allowing the Thunder to maintain hope in the final quarter, Dallas closed the game strong and reminded us of what should continue to be an advantage for the battle-tested Mavericks: execution in the final moments of close games.
After seeing their lead trimmed to as little as five, it was Dirk and Terry who again shouldered the offensive load and ensured that a letdown loss would not be allowed to arrive.
With 28.9 seconds to play, after Dirk drew the defense by putting the ball on the floor and attacking, it was Terry who received his pass and threw the final dagger, draining an open 3-pointer to put the Mavs back up nine.
On Monday, Jet said that "outperforming'' the other team's entire bench is "what I do.'' Jet's 24 did indeed top OKC's bench total of 22.
CHIPPY CENTERS: Statistically, neither Kendrick Perkins or Tyson Chandler made much of an impact, though the statistics may miss the role Chandler played in protecting the paint, and causing someone like Westbrook to hit only 3-of-15 shots.
Perkins, and his renowned scowl, was brought in to patrol the paint and bring some interior toughness to the Thunder. Just 1:10 into the game, we got our first reminder of this as Perkins and Chandler tangled in the paint and double-technicals were assessed.
Next up for Perkins was Shawn Marion's face … more directly, his nose.
"I thought maybe the biggest key to the game was Marion coming back after he got his nose broken by Perkins," Carlisle said. "We need him out there to try to deal with Durant. He was bleeding, he had things (cotton balls0 stuck up his nose, it was a really difficult situation, but we desperately needed him out there."
After the game we learned that x-rays showed there was no break in Marion's nose, but Carlisle's words stand. The thing is stillbleeding as we write this. 'Trix thought it was broken. Carlisle thought it was broken. And our man didn't miss a moment.
The game got chippy, but the Mavs didn't back down … they simply rubbed some dirt on it and got back to work.
Our Kevin Brolan set the over/under on double-technicals involving Perk and TY at 2.5 for the series. You can still get your money down. Bet the over.
TY says he doesn't expect the Thunder to fade easily ...
WHISTLE-HAPPY? NO, THIS WAS WHISTLE-ECSTACY!: Kevin Durant shot 19 free throws. Westbrook was good for 18 more. Dirk walked to the line for 24 attempts. When all was said and done, there were 79 free throws attempted by both teams combined. OKC went 37-of-43, while Dallas went 34-of-36.
The pace of the second half was particularly destroyed by ticky-tack calls, against both teams, that threatened to destroy all sense of rhythm for either team. Of the 79 free throws, 56 came in the second half.
Especially offensive: Joey Crawford, who as so often happens seemed to want to inject himself and his personality into the game.
QUOTEBOARD: "The main thing is, we found a way to win," Nowitzki said. "That's what it's all about."
AN OFF-COURT STORYLINE: Mark Cuban's silence is golden. ... as celebrated on the Channel 8 pregame show with Fish, Riba and Hansen:
And indeed, about all Cuban said before the game is that silence is "golden, baby.''
MAVSELLANEOUS: If we're OKC fans, we think it a bad sign that Brooks went with the late-game desperation heave of what was essentially a four-guard lineup ... "I just kept attacking,'' says 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.''
... 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. ... Three reasons Westbrook struggled: 1) TY doesn't have to worry about his man, so he is free to help; 2) Dallas is laying off him, preferring he shoot from the outside; and 3) The Mavs instituted that zone, hoping additional perimeter bodies might gang up on him. ... OKC would like Serge to be blocking Dirk's shots. Instead, Serge ended with zero blocks and Dirk ended with four. ... Impossible-to-Predict Rick went with Corey Brewer as an energy spark in the early going ... How did JJB out-athlete Nate Robinson? ... Remember when OKC played Memphis in Game 1 of its last series and Z-Bo was so great that Durant declared him the best power forward in the game? Durant was wrong.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS: Allow us to calculate:
*So Nowitzki keeps setting up at the right elbow, backing in, backing in … if OKC doesn't foul him, he unleashes spin moves to the rim or his unstoppable One-Legged Euro Lean-Back. … and he makes 12-of-15 from the field. If OKC does foul him, he lopes to the line to make 24-of-24, setting a Dallas record for free throws made in a playoff game.
Bill Simmons asks how other guys have done in terms of big scoring with few misses. We are here to serve:
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.''
*Dallas managed just 20 in the first but then went 35, 35 and 31.
*The Thunder won the board battle, 35-33. Not much to hang an OKC hat on, though.
*This year's Mavs are 3-0 in Game 1s and 2-0 in Game 2s.
*Game 1 winners go onto capture the series 78.6 percent of the time.
THE PEJA PRESENCE: He got his open shots. But ...
Peja Stojakovic couldn't keep his hot shooting from Game 4 going, as he hit only 1-of-8 attempts, including 1-of-6 of his 3-pointers.
DeShawn Stevenson put up a trio of quick shots in the first quarter, and fought against any hopes the Mavs had of getting their offense, outside of Dirk, on track. He was slightly better in the third quarter, but Dallas needs D-Steve too be nothing more than an offensive accept piece. (And then, if 'Trix fouls out, as happened here, he can be a defensive finisher, too.) It's tricky, because Carlisle encourages everyone to "step into those 3's.'' But a little offense from Stevenson goes a long way.
Kevin Durant scored 40 points on 10-of-18 shooting, including 18-of-19 at the free-throw line. For much of the night, it was Shawn Marion's job to make him work for those points. It's hard to say he did a good job in the face of those numbers, but he didn't stand out particularly at that end of the court.
On offense, the stats say Marion was 5-of-10 from the floor for 11 points, seven rebounds, three assists, one steal and one block. However, there were stretched that left us commenting on how poorly he was performing on offense. The stats may not be horrible, but a few of the misses were shots Matrix must convert, and when combined with some untimely turnovers or miscues, they helped the Thunder stay in the game.
Rick praised Marion so that's good enough for us. And Peja got good looks. We have faith they'll go down next time. So that's good enough for us, too.
THE FINAL WORD: In Game 1 we were given a show by two of the league's best offensive weapons: Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki. As a pair they scored 88 points on 22-of-33 attempts. But only one team gets to celebrate ... let's do that down in the Mavs' tunnel ...
In the games to come, we're sure to see both teams find ways of at least curbing those numbers to some degree, which means other players are going to have their chance to step up. We may not see Westbrook hit only 3-of-15 shots-- KD says he'll "bet my house'' that doesn't happen again -- though he didn't shoot better than 33.3 percent (5-of-15) in any of his previous three meetings with Dallas this season, just as we're unlikely to see only nine points from Jason Kidd (who did add 11 assists and three steals), Tyson Chandler and Peja combined again. This series has a long way to go, but that doesn't take away the fact that it's nice to kick things off on the right foot.