Here are five observations (and some other notes) from the Thunder’s 128-119 loss in Dallas on Tuesday night:
1. Excusable loss - Some familiar areas of concern resurfaced for the Thunder in this loss to Dallas. And I’ll get to those. But this game was a lot more about the solid play of a desperate Mavericks team — fighting to stay in the playoffs — than OKC faltering. Jose Calderon was scorching hot from deep, Vince Carter fired in some big shots and Dirk Nowitzki was the best player on the floor down the stretch. A vintage Dirk game when his team absolutely had to have it: 32 points, 10 rebounds, six assists. It was the Thunder’s second loss to Dallas in the past nine days. But this one was far more excusable than the first.
2. Three-point defense – Entering play on Tuesday, the Thunder was giving up an average of 8.5 three-point makes per game, the third most in the NBA. But it’s been far worse than that in their last six losses (all within the past 30 days). By game, here are the number of opponent threes: 11, 13, 15, 13, 13 and 15. Beyond Russell Westbrook’s health, that has surfaced as the biggest concern for this team come playoff-time. Whether it’s a schematic thing or purely an effort issue, OKC’s gotta shore it up. If not, it could become this team’s eventual downfall. Just take Tuesday night for example. With less than two minutes left in the second quarter, the Thunder was rolling, up nine heading to halftime. But some extremely poor perimeter defense gave Dallas three straight momentum-stealing 3s to tie it up, capped by this wide open look for Vince Carter on a clear defensive breakdown:
As the game wore on, OKC continued to give up far too many clean looks. Russell Westbrook kept going under screens, freeing up the hot-shooting Jose Calderon (who went 6-of-9 for three). And twice, the Thunder gave Dirk Nowitzki the type of unopposed shot that he’ll rarely miss.
On this one, Steven Adams mistakenly goes under on a transition screen:
And on the backbreaker — a dagger three with a minute left in overtime — Durant overhelped on a pick and roll. After the game, a defensive Durant credited the Mavs with solid execution and said he was just playing team defense, jumping the cutter and preventing a wide open dunk. But with Derek Fisher in good enough position to at least present an obstacle, it sure looks like Durant (in the below screenshot) strayed a bit too far from one of the world’s greatest shooters:
Dallas finished with 15 threes.
3. Resting Westbrook - Russell Westbrook’s planned limitations have expectedly hurt the Thunder on nights he has been forced to rest. No Westbrook equals a worse on-court product. But the negative effects of his maintenance program have also surfaced during the games he does play. Tuesday was the greatest example. In and out of the lineup, Westbrook started the game understandably rusty, losing his handle a couple times and making some sloppy, out of control decisions. In seven first quarter minutes, he went 1-of-4 with five turnovers and left with the Thunder down 10. Then later in the game, after he had recaptured his rhythm and put together a few dominant bursts, his minutes limitation got in the way. Already at 30 minutes, Brooks rested him to start overtime. By the time Westbrook was reinserted with two minutes left, the Thunder trailed by seven and it was basically over.
-After the game, Brooks said he wanted to keep Westbrook at no more than 32 minutes: “I’m not a dummy. I want our best players in there throughout the game. But the plan was in place.”
-Westbrook on the decision to sit: “It’s just part of the plan. Ain’t nothing I can do about it but go out there and play the time I can and play them hard.”
-Westbrook when asked how tough it was to watch the start of OT from the bench: “It’s tough sitting out 40 games, too. Ain’t nothing tougher than that. Like I said before the game, I can’t play and let my competitive nature take over. I want to play, but I have to think about the future and think about my health for the next couple years.”
4. Minutiae - As the playoffs near, it’ll be interesting to follow how Scott Brooks divvies up the minutes in those highly competitive games. That’ll give us the best indication of what to expect come playoff-time when the rotation tightens up. Tuesday was a great case study. Brooks shortened his rotation and (SPOILER ALERT!!!!) trusted his veterans in the most crucial spots. Here’s how he handed out the minutes in a dramatic overtime game against Dallas:
-Kevin Durant: 51
-Reggie Jackson: 41
-Caron Butler: 34
-Serge Ibaka: 33
-Russell Westbrook: 33
-Derek Fisher: 27
-Nick Collison: 22
-Andre Roberson: 13
-Steven Adams: 11
-Couple quick thoughts: No Perry Jones or Jeremy Lamb (who got his first DNP of the season). A pair of young guys who have unfortunately been cut out of the rotation. Also, only 24 combined minutes for Andre Roberson and Steven Adams. The Thunder may trot them out as starters, but Scott Brooks is giving them minutes equivalent to 8th and 9th men. And when Thabo and Perk get back, those two will slide to 10th and 11th men, head of the DNP group. My guess for Brooks veteran-heavy 9-man playoff rotation: KD, Westbrook, Ibaka, Jackson, Butler, Fisher, Collison, Thabo, Perk. I’m sure there will be no grumblings from fans (<-sarcasm font).
5. Reginald Jackson - Third consecutive great performance from Reggie Jackson. His confidence has returned and, with it, so has the Thunder’s third dynamic perimeter playmaker. He had 25 points and 12 rebounds in Toronto, 16 points and 11 assists against Denver and 11 points, eight assists and five rebounds on Tuesday night. Scott Brooks played him with Westbrook and Durant a ton. And he coexisted, able to play off the ball, pick his spots and still get his numbers. Plus, he made a ton of plays for others. A good sign for the stretch run.
TRAVEL GUIDE: Dallas – Not the most eventful of my trips this season. Didn’t even have to take a flight to get here. Hopped in a car on Tuesday morning and made the 3-hour trek down. Visited the JFK assassination site (still kinda eerie) before the game and then made my way over to the American Airlines Center. Nice, clean arena. A great atmosphere for a basketball game, with a crowd that was fully engaged and HD video boards everywhere, offering plenty of timely replays (you’d be surprised how rare that is). Dallas always does it right. And I even got indoctrinated into the Mark Cuban experience. In the third quarter, during a video review of a DeJuan Blair foul, he came over right by my seat and started chopping it up with the guy seated behind me. The entire conversation was about calls he thought Dallas was getting jobbed on. Dude is so passionate. Irrational at times, but always passionate. Gotta respect that. A unique owner.
-Turnovers were a big problem for Oklahoma City tonight: 21 in the game, eight for Westbrook, five for Durant.
-Derek Fisher in 27 minutes: 5-of-9 shooting, 13 points, a plus/minus of +13 and two absolutely MONSTAHHH 3s late in the game. Get used to it, Thunder fans: This guy’s going to be playing crunch time minutes in the playoffs. And with semi-consistent performances like this, it’s hard to grumble about it.
-Kevin Durant played 51 minutes tonight. He leads the NBA in minutes played. After the game, he said he’s not concerned about all that mileage.
-Durant extended his streak to 36 straight games of 25-plus points. Four away from MJ. He also scored 40-plus points for the 13th time this season, the most for a player since 2008-09 when Dwyane Wade did it.
-Vince Carter just loves to talk to everybody. The dude will just wander around the court during any stoppages in play and strike up quick conversations with anyone he sees.
-All the video reviews were a little over the top.
-One positive on this night for OKC: The loss helped Dallas maintain its grip on a playoff spot. And if the Mavericks get into the postseason, it’ll likely mean their first round pick in June’s draft (top-20 protected) will be handed over to the Thunder.
-Standings update: With the Spurs idle, the Thunder dropped to 2.5 games behind San Antonio in the race for the West’s top seed:
-Up next: The Thunder has Sacramento and Utah in town this Friday and Sunday, two cushy home games against teams with a combined record of 48-93.