The Dallas Mavericks have a problem.
It's not just the 0-2 hole that they are in against the Thunder.
It's also the guy who wears No. 0.
Russell Westbrook is giving the Mavs fits, and it doesn't look like there's anything Dallas can do about it. Doesn't seem to matter who or what the Mavs throw at him.
“He's the guy who's been killing us,” Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki said.
Through the first two games of this Western Conference playoff series, Westbrook is averaging 28.5 points and shooting 52.3 percent. He's getting to the rim. He's hitting midrange jumpers. He's even knocking down that occasional 3-point shot.
Add in the fact that he's playing some lockdown defense when needed, and you've got a guy for whom the Mavs has no answer.
Listen, heading into this series, we knew this was the matchup where the Thunder had the potential to have the biggest advantage. Westbrook is that athletic, that talented, that multidimensional.
But Westbrook struggled during the last month of the regular season. After shooting nearly 50 percent during the month of March, his shooting percentage dipped to 37.8 percent.
It was ugly.
But that slump is now long gone.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks credits Westbrook's daily regimen. He's one of the first guys in the gym before practice working on his shot, and it doesn't matter whether he's coming off a good shooting game or a bad shooting game.
“When you have that kind of consistent approach, I think you can break away from a bad stretch of shooting quicker than if you don't,” Brooks said. “Everybody's going to have a bad stretch. The greatest shooters ever in this game will have a bad stretch here and there.”
Exhibit 1: Kevin Durant.
The Thunder star is struggling mightily in these playoffs, but the boys in blue keep winning because of Westbrook.
He just looks like a man on a mission.
As the series shifts to Dallas for Game 3 and 4, the Mavs are scrambling for answers. They tried a little bit of everything Monday in Game 2.
“We start off the game double teaming him,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said.
“He split us, broke us down and got to the rim.”
So, the Mavs tried a zone defense instead. Maybe slowing Westbrook wasn't the only reason for the switch, but he was a significant part of it.
Westbrook drove in and found the holes in the zone. Those open spots allowed him good open looks, and he knocked down a bunch of jumpers.
“I just try to take what the defense gives me,” Westbrook said. “I've been working on that shot since I've been in the NBA. I'm just trying to use it to my advantage.”
Carlisle said, “We have done a decent job about keeping him out of the paint, but he's stroking it. We are going to have to go back to the drawing board and cook something else up.”
Carlisle is a great strategist, especially when it comes to making adjustments. It's entirely possible that the Mavs will come out Thursday night with a defensive plan that will stop Westbrook in his tracks.
But I doubt it.
What are the Mavs going to do, take Shawn Marion off Durant duty and put him on Westbrook? I mean, Marion is their best defender. But if he doesn't take Durant, who does? Who else on the Mavs' roster can handle Durant's size and range and skill?
Yes, Durant has gone cold in these playoffs, but there's no way the Mavs risk letting him break out of that slump by taking Marion off of him.
That leaves Westbrook to Jason Kidd and Delonte West and Jason Terry.
And we've seen how that's worked out so far for the Mavs.
“He's kept them in games,” Dirk said. “He's been aggressive. He has a great shooting rhythm lately.
“He's been phenomenal.”
Things would be different if Westbrook wasn't hitting those jumpers. But you know what? (Listen up, Sir Charles and Skip.) He is hitting them.
And that is a problem for the Mavericks.
The longer this series goes, the more it looks like Westbrook may be a problem for which the Mavs have no answer.