There are ways to deal with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. That sounds like crazy talk but it's true. Superstars demand attention and while you can't completely stop them, you can slow them down.
You double-team them. You stay with them wherever they're on the floor. You throw "junk defenses" at them, as Durant alluded to on Saturday night. You ask one of your best players to assume the challenge of matching up one-on-one, as Dallas' Wesley Matthews has when it comes to Durant. Or, more to the point, the player asks for the challenge.
"Who do you think?" Matthews told a reporter when asked who made the decision Matthews would defend Durant whenever he was on the floor in Game 4. "Mine, if you needed to hear it."
Durant scored 19 points and was ejected with less than a minute to play after he was called for a flagrant two foul while defending the Mavericks' Justin Anderson. Westbrook had 25 points and 15 assists. But at least he grabbed two rebounds this time.
Durant and Westbrook got theirs. But coming into this series I think we all realized the real difference-maker would come inside. The Mavericks were at a fundamental disadvantage in that area and how they handled it would determine how long the series would go.
After falling to Oklahoma City 119-108 Saturday night, it's hard to see this series extending past Game 5 in Oklahoma City Monday night. The Mavs are down 3-1 and the Thunder seem to be closing in on putting them away.
"We have to keep fighting on Monday and whoever is playing is going to have to come full swing," Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki said after a vintage 27-point performance.
The Mavs' bigs are solid. Zaza Pachulia has been a steady player all season. Salah Mejri can give the Mavs nice minutes, and he did that Saturday night with two big blocked shots. David Lee returned to the floor in Game 3 and he's managed to give the pair a break. And, frankly, you have to include Nowitzki in this category, too.
But the challenge they faced against the Thunder's front line — Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter — was tremendous. Three young, physical, energetic players against the Mavs' older, savvier front line and Mejri, a rookie who is still learning the ropes.
It was clear who won the battle Saturday night.
"The rebounding continues to be a challenge and I think we can make progress there," Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said.
That's like trying put lipstick on a pig at this point.
Through the first three games the Thunder had out-rebounded the Mavericks 152-108. The trend continued Saturday night as OKC out-rebounded Dallas 42-33. Sometimes totals can be misleading. For instance, Matthews is having a nice series rebounding the ball, having grabbed 15 in four games. Likewise, Durant has more than 20 boards in four games, but he doesn't play with his back to the basket.
But when you look at the numbers inside the difference is startling. Adams, Ibaka and Kanter have 91 combined rebounds. Kanter, who comes off the bench, leads with 35. Pachulia, Nowitzki, Lee and Mejri have just 61. Sure, it's hard to blame Lee as he was hurt the first two games. But take him out of the equation and the difference gets worse, so let's include him.
On Saturday Adams, Kanter and Ibaka had 19 of OKC's 42 rebounds. Nowitzki, Lee, Pachulia and Mejri had 18 of Dallas' 33 rebounds. That's right. It took four Mavs to nearly equal three Thunder when it came to rebounding. In fact Dallas' leading rebounder through four games is Nowitzki with 22. Yes, the 37-year-old German superstar is this team's leading rebounder through four games. You wonder why he's so tired, and yet he's waving off Carlisle when his coach tries to take him out of the game.
But the Thunder's inside play was a big reason why the Mavs could never get over the hump against the Thunder. There were openings — they weren't big — but they were there. Durant and Westbrook weren't razor sharp. And every time the Mavs closed the gap to eight or nine points, something seemed to happen. And it usually revolved around Kanter.
Saturday night it was the 6-foot-11 sixth man that killed the Mavs, scoring 28 points. It seemed like every time a loose ball was around the Thunder basket Kanter was there. Kanter didn't attempt a 3-pointer Saturday night, but he was an outrageous 12-of-13 from the floor. I'm not sure he took a shot outside of the paint all night. He didn't need to.
"He's getting tip-ins and he's bottom feeding off their great players," Carlisle said. "When we get into rotation he's in the right place at the right time and he's a good finisher."
Carlisle spoke earlier this season about the dearth of big men winning the Sixth Man award. He basically said that given the high volume of great outside players who inhabit that role, it's hard for a big man to get an edge. Jamal Crawford of the Clippers won the award again this year.
Westbrook would like to get in a word about that.
"Honestly I think the stuff (Kanter) does is unbelievable," Westbrook said. "I've always respected Jamal Crawford, but I honestly don't think it should have been close for Sixth Man of the Year."
Everyone knew this would be a tough road for the Mavs. The Game 2 win tricked us a little bit, into believing that grit might be able to overtake superior talent. The truth has emerged after four games. The Mavericks don't have an adequate answer for what the Thunder can do to them inside. Inside the paint Oklahoma City scores better, Oklahoma City rebounds better and Oklahoma City responds better in the critical moments.
Game 5 is Monday (7p.m. at OKC). Does Carlisle - who tried to plant a seed regarding OKC's excessive physicality after Game 3 - have anything left in his bag of tricks?
"We'll count the bodies we have available and we'll throw the kitchen sink at them," he said.
Fitting. An actual kitchen sink might be the only potential remedy to push the Thunder around inside. But by this point Nowitzki might be too exhausted to swing it.
Mavsellaneous: Carlisle told reporters after the game that he believes guard Deron Williams is done for the year and doesn't expect him to play in Game 5. Williams re-aggravated his sports hernia in the first minute of Saturday's game chasing a loose ball. Center Salah Mejri suffered a hip flexor strain late in the game and Carlisle says he's questionable, though official word has not come from the Mavs' trainers. … Thunder forward Kevin Durant's flagrant two foul late in the game will be reviewed the league office before Game 5. There is a possibility the foul could lead to a suspension. After the game Durant was apologetic, saying the foul was not intentional. Durant said he was trying to block Justin Anderson's shot and that his hand missed the ball and hit Anderson in the head. Durant said he agreed with the call and had already texted Anderson an apology. The pair have a friendship, as they went to the same high school, Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Md. Thunder coach Billy Donovan said it was unfortunate but that from his perspective it looked like a "normal basketball play." Nowitzki thought the foul was "tough" and "unnecessary."
The Final Word: "We've all got to enjoy it while we can. We're seeing one of the most special athletes in sports history."- Carlisle on Dirk Nowitzki.
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