You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
You know what they say: If you’re going to lose a winnable series in four games, at least go out in an exhibition for one of the game’s most fantastically understated players, supplying the wood for his buzzsaw in what one can ultimately assume will be a daunting display of razor-focused finesse and craftsmanship. James Harden (29 points, 11-16 FG, 3-4 3FG, five rebounds, five assists) gets a raw deal because the public’s attention span can only extend to two star teammates at a time, but he’s far too good to be relegated as some distant third, and far too lethal to be ignored, even for a second. Dallas tried a number of coverages from a variety of directions in the fourth quarter, but none of it mattered — Harden attacked from the same point on the floor at the same angle, repeatedly bludgeoning the Mavericks with his own unique grace. And, as an important extension: credit upon credit to Scott Brooks, who afforded Harden the opportunities he needed without the slightest interference. Harden keyed the offense and out-dueled Dirk Nowitzki, all because his teammates agreed to spot up from the perimeter, because his coach saw an opening and exploited it, and because he’s a ridiculously difficult pick-and-roll cover.
Joon Kim is the author of NBA Breakdown, and its subsidiaries, Spurs Motion Offense and The Triangle Offense — a tree of sites dedicated to analyzing the NBA’s structural elements. He’ll be contributing periodically to The Two Man Game with video-based breakdowns, illustrating particular aspects of the Mavericks’ performance. You can follow Joon on Twitter: @JoonKim00.
Our minds are obsessed with recent history. The last memories we form about an event can dominate how we later relive those experiences: a good first date can be ruined by a bad kiss, or a relaxing vacation can be undone by a stressful return home. With basketball it’s no different; regular season MVPs who falter in the postseason are labeled as chokers, and superstars who struggle but manage to hit clutch shots are remembered as heroes.
If we focus only on the end, the Mavericks seemingly created the looks necessary to win both games. Last year those shots came up heads, this year they’ve hit a stretch of tails.
However, the Mavericks shouldn’t return home regretting how they played at the end of their most recent game. The game was truly lost in a brutal 21-4 Thunder run lasting from the end of the first quarter through midway of the second. During that stretch, the Mavs weren’t locked down by a smothering Thunder defense. They were undone from within: over-dribbling, mental lapses, and the willingness to settle for jumpers all culminated in this possession:
In the initial play we see one pass made to Vince Carter, who isolates at the elbow. Carter dribbles at that spot for six seconds, attempting to survey the defense as James Harden cedes the entire baseline. The other Mavericks aren’t much help as none can decide where to spot up. Carter’s pounding is finally broken up by Harden’s deflection. Now further from the basket at a worse angle, Carter eventually goes baseline, but with no available passing angles, Carter forces a shot behind his head over the contest of Nick Collison. The Mavericks secure the rebound with a new shot clock, but Jason Terry decides to launch a 30-foot contested three-pointer.
All was not lost during this lopsided Thunder run, and there remains a silver lining. The deep hole forced Carlisle to go to a three-guard lineup with Shawn Marion at the four and Dirk Nowitzki at the five. The flow of the offense returned, but not in typical small ball fashion. The offense was revived because Kendrick Perkins was forced to guard Dirk Nowitzki:
In the beginning of the clip, we notice the pace and aggression of the Mavs is noticeably higher. Jason Kidd’s misses a layup but the Mavericks gather the rebound. Dirk slides into the post and the ball is swung to Marion who feeds him. As Dirk sets up, Marion cuts and the other Mavs properly space the floor. Perkins gives Dirk just enough airspace to rise up for the jumper.
Again, in this clip, the Mavericks are attacking quickly. Dirk gets to the same spot and Kidd feeds him the ball. Having established the jumper, Dirk pump fakes Perkins, who bites hard. Nowitzki drives by and uses another pump fake to draw an and-one on Serge Ibaka.
Growing frustrated, Perkins commits an off-the-ball foul while attempting to deny Dirk:
The fast pace of the Mavericks finds Perkins uncomfortably matched up against Dirk again. This time in transition, all the way out to the three point line:
Once again, Dirk uses a pump fake to get by Perkins leading to another and-one. It’s that simple.
The Thunder are a talented group, but they feature a jump-shot heavy half-court attack that can quickly turn south. The difference between being up or down two can be blamed on coin flips alone, but an improbable series win lies more in the Mavs ability to play a complete game than in any particular late-game fortune.