Round 3, Game 5 (Dallas v OKC)

And that’s how Dallas went back to the NBA finals.  The series, which most experts predicted would go 6 or 7 (and which a significant number predicted the Thunder would win), came down to 5 incredibly entertaining games.  Revisionists and fools will look at the stats and forgot, or simply miss, how close the games were.  It’s not that Dallas’ game 4 comeback will be forgotten, or that there was not a double-digit victory the entire series.  No, what will be lost is that OKC had chances, good chances, to win games 3, 4, and 5, only to come up short.  People will see the 5 game series and fail to remember that OKC stole one in Dallas and that the series was tied at 1-1 and could easily have been 2-0 for OKC, but for Nowitzki’s heroics.

Thus, though I do feel justified to some extent in my gloating over picking Dallas in 5, it has become evident to me that this was not your average 5-game series.  My estimate may have been spot-on, but it was predicated on Dallas being the superior team in terms of confidence, poise and drive, as well as being equal talent-wise.  In this prediction I was partially right, but mostly wrong.  With the series over, I have no choice but to accept that Durnat and Co. did have the drive and confidence to win.  However, in one area, I was right – the Thunder didn’t have the poise.  Nowitzki’s heroics will be remembered as the takeaway of the series, but maybe what should be recalled is the absolute lack of execution and poise displayed by the Thunder game after game.

What I noticed when I watched game five was just how good the Thunder were.  Young and energetic, there was never a point at which I doubted the Thunder could win the game – at least not until the final 6 minutes of the game.  No Thunder lead felt safe for the singular reason that you knew that in the final minutes, Dallas would make a push and that OKC would disintegrate into a collection of isolation airballs and turnovers.  Even when OKC pushed the lead to 8 (or 9, it might have been) early in the 4th, there was never any doubt in my mind that Dallas could come back.  I feared they might lose, but I never assumed they were out.

So if you get nothing else from this blog, know that OKC’s execution in the final minutes of the game (and, as it turned out, their season) was positively putrid.  Turnovers again plagued the Thunder during crunch time.  Two things you must never do as a team with the lead in the 4th quarter: foul the other team (especially if they’re in the penalty) and turn the ball over.  The Thunder did both in the final 6 minutes… six times each!  Couple that with the least ingenious play-calling ever and the Thunder had nothing upon which to hang their hats.  A side note, I’m still not sure who to blame for the offensive disintegration by OKC down the stretch.  The truth is that unless Scottie Brooks called for Durant to get the ball 30 feet from the basket and run an isolation play with various teammates drawing extra defenders to the ball by cutting in front of him ever couple seconds, then an ample amount of the blame falls on the OKC players, because that seemed to be exactly what they did (if you want to run an isolation play, do what Chicago did with Rose in game 4; not endorsing it, just saying that’s how to run an isolation play).

So there you have that.  The turning point of the game was definitely the 3 that Dirk hit to put Dallas up by 1 with just 1:15 left in the game.  Dirk, who didn’t play particularly well (not that he played poorly, he still had 26 and 9; 8/15 from the field and 9/9 from the line), got the ball back on an offensive rebound kickout after missing an open 3 seconds earlier, stepped into the shot, and buried a dead-on 3 with Collison closing out as well as humanly possible.  A quick aside on Collison – he played about as well defensively as a big man can play the entire series.  He played only 17 minutes in game 1, but by game 5, logged 38.  He also shot 73% for the series, averaged 8.6-7.4-1.6-1.4-1.2 (as well as almost 5 fouls/game).  That was impressive all series long.

Player of the game goes clearly to Marion, who headlines the “unsung players of the series” list which include the aforementioned Collison, Chandler, Kidd, and Harden.  But back to Marion, game 5 was his show.  He completely shut down Durant throughout the night holding the league’s leading scorer holding him to just 23 points on 8/20 shooting, a theme that held from games 2-5.  Oh, and did I mentioned that Marion scored 26, grabbed 8 boards, tossed in 3 dimes, a steal and 3 blocks?  Dallas does not win this game without Marion.

Since I’m a slacker and it’s already Thursday night after the Chicago v Miami series has ended (Chicago just collapsed to lose game 5; I’ll blog on that tomorrow), it’s going to be a rematch of sorts: Miami v Dallas.  Now, before we get all nostalgic, let’s remember that there are about 2 players on either team that played for these respective teams in their last championship bout: Nowitzki and Terry for the Mavs; Wade and Haslem for the Heat.

However, I’ll be doing a fuller breakdown of the finals later, so let’s leave the Heat and Mavs and talk about the Thunder for a bit.  Honestly, I’m not as gung-ho on the Thunder as most people.  They have a fantastic core for sure, but there are a number of things that I’m worried about.  First, Ibaka, who everyone had been talking up about being the next great interior defender got eaten alive by Nowitzki.  Now Dirk’s no slouch, but Ibaka didn’t just fail, he was replaced almost entirely in his defensive duties by the immortal Nick Collison.  Sure Serge is but 22, but I worry about his development a lot.

Next, I worry about (okay, that’s an exaggeration; I question, how’s that?) OKC’s ability to create shots down the stretch.  Three things in particular stand out to me: 1) Durant is not quick or fast enough to consistently be relied upon to create his own shots down the stretch.  Every team has a defensive specialist who will be hanging off Durant who had many a nightmare game against the likes of Tony Allen, Shane Battier, Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd; 2) Westbrook has a mightly long way to go towards being an effective point guard.  He’s just got too much of a scorer’s mentality and he’s proven nothing when it comes to finding and exploiting mismatches or weaknesses in opposing defenses.  Sure he’s young and can (and will) improve greatly.  But he’s also a hot-head (6 T’s), and doesn’t seem to meld well with Durant.  Durant needs a second shooter, and a distributor – Westbrook is a dribbler and slasher; 3) Scottie Brooks looked like a coach out of his league.  It’s a great story for a coach to take a team of kindergardeners from the playground to the bigtime, but the way Brooks handled consecutive meltdowns in games 4 and 5, as well as constantly tweaking his lineup and matchups (I don’t think I saw the same 5 guys on the floor in the final minutes of the 4th in any two games), is scary.  You can attribute that to a work in progress, but you don’t go from drawing up horrific isolation plays in game-winning situations to diagraming successful plays out of time-outs overnight.  Brooks needs to improve as much as anyone this off season (as he alluded to in his post-game interview) or he will be axed, because the Thunder will never win a championship with the 2011 version of Scottie Brooks at the helm.

Finally, I’m not sure what the Thunder can honestly do with their roster.  They made their “big” move by getting Perkins, but unless he is sprinkled in pixie dust over the summer, he’s not going to be the piece they needed.  They have a core of Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Harden, Sefolosha, Perkins and Maynor (and sort-of Collison, but long term, he’s not in the picture).  Problem is, I think this season (yes, they will improve, but banking on that is a bad, bad idea) sort of, in a way, proved that that core probably won’t cut it.  That means that unless one or more of the guys makes a quantum leap, they need to make another move and break more of their vaunted chemistry in a trade.  And for that reason, I’m worried that the Thunder have pulled a Portland Trailblazers with all the hype, all the talent, all the youth, all the future aspirations (not necessarily all the injuries), but unable to have them all fit together into a championship team.

So on that sour note, the Thunder go home and regroup, and the Mavs go to Miami to chase their dreams.  I swear I’m going to be breaking things every time Miami scores.  It is rare that a finals matchup actually has a team I like versus a team I loathe.  And unfortunately, the team I loathe is going to have monster advantages everywhere in the finals (there’s your spoiler for my series preview).

Yours Truly,

Basketblogger

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