We painstakingly spent almost a week in a seemingly fruitless search for a Dallas advantage in its Round 1 NBA Playoffs series with OKC. After all, as Dirk Nowitzki himself said, Said Dirk: “Obviously, with their talent, with their team and with their roster, they’re still the heavy favorites.’'
And that was Dirk’s reflection on this series after his team forged an 85-84 win in Monday’s Game 2. Imagine the mental concessions being make to the Thunder before the series started? And after OKC’s Game 1 shellacking of Dallas by a 108-70 score?
But now this series has existed just long enough to have taken on a life of its own, to offer a crystalizing of not only Dirk’s stated facts — OKC’s team, talent and roster are superior to Dallas’ — but also a crystalizing of the Mavs’ lone potential advantage:
When this Mavs team is knocked to the mat, it rises.
When this Thunder team rises over the course of three quarters, it too often follows with falls to the mat.
The hard, statistical evidence of this Mavs phenomenon?
Six times during the regular season, Dallas lost a game by 20 points or more. Did the Mavs keep their collective tail between their legs in the ensuing game? Nope. Dallas’ record in the game following a 20-point blowout loss was 5-1.
And now, thanks to these playoffs, make it 6-1.
The hard, statistical evidence of the contrary Thunder phenomenon? OKC lost 27 regular-season games this year, a fine accomplishment on the way to a 55-win season and a No. 3 seed in the West. But oddly, in 15 of those 27 losses, the Thunder entered the fourth quarter holding the lead.
And now, OKC has a 28th loss (thanks to Game 2) and yes, the Thunder entered that playoff match’s fourth quarter with a lead over an overmatched sixth-seed from Dallas … and couldn’t hold it.
“I think we’ve been doing a good job go playing well and closing out games,’’ said Russell Westbrook in early April after OKC had blown a start-the-fourth lead for the 13th time on the way to an NBA-worst 15 blown games in this fashion. “I’m not worried about that.’'
Arrogance? Or ignorance?
Either way, it gives some hope to a Dallas team that prides itself on being competitive because of heart and soul and head.
Said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle: "We've got to play a working-man's, grinding, highly intelligent game."
Counter that with Westbrook’s early-April take on losing leads after a 118-110 loss to Houston — “What do you consider a lead? We were up two points (going into the fourth.) Do you consider that ‘losing a lead’? To me, if we’re up two points going into the fourth quarter, that’s not losing a lead’’ — and you have yourself a good-guy/bad-guy narrative:
The Mavs need to be smart and they know it.
The Thunder aren’t smart and they don’t know it.
If OKC struggles again in Thursday’s Game 3 at the AAC (6 p.m. tip, with the DB.com Boards GameThread here), critics will cite everything from Westbrook’s arrogance to Westbrook’s ignorance to Westbrook’s fragile psyche being further damaged by Charlie Villanueva’s pre-Game 2 crashing of his dance party. (And of course, another 7-of-33 shooting performance from Kevin Durant and another OKC game-winning buzzer-beater than neither beats the buzzer nor wins the game would help, too.)
How gritty are the Mavs? Historically so. Dallas is just the fourth team in NBA history to lose a playoff game by 35 points and then win Game 2.
How wobbly are is OKC? Maybe not at all, in the end, for if you predicted they’d run away with this series by a 4-1 margin or so, you are still right on track. And yet … as OKC is just 10-9 in its last 19 home playoff games, you wonder if there isn’t just the tiniest hope upon which to grasp.
And that’s what this is all about, right? Hope that Carlisle’s ability to win a road playoff game as an underdog (only three coaches in NBA history have done it more) pops up again. Hope that there continues to be good news from the trainers room (see UPDATE here on Dirk’s knee bruise and Deron’s hernia and JJB’s groin and David Lee's foot and that they are all miraculously OK. Hope that kids Justin Anderson and Salah Mejri continue to survive in part due to Dallas’ shield-from-error SlowBall. Hope that Felton can do it again and that Matthews can do more.
Hope that “fight’’ is enough.
Listen to the quotes erupting out of the Dallas locker room now.
From Dirk: “We let them know we’re here to fight. … We let them know this is not going to be an easy walkover.”
From Felton: “We were coming in here for a dogfight, no matter what.’'
From Carlisle: “We know now that it’s on.’’
“On’’ for “the working-man’’ Mavs to try to scale a peak.
“On’’ for the “heavy-favorite’’ Thunder to climb as well … but then once there, maybe to stumble under the weight of their packs.