A potential and perhaps likely first-round playoff opponent stormed into Chesapeake Energy Arena on Sunday, and before the Dallas Mavericks departed, taking with them a stunning 109-86 victory, they displayed the one thing they still have that could keep the Thunder awake at night in a seven-game series.
Pinpoint 3-point shooting.
Dallas drilled 13 of 24 3-pointers against a Thunder defense that took two steps back Sunday. The Mavs rained 3s in transition, off brilliant ball movement, slow contests and by, worst of all, casually walking into them.
Each make stung a little more than the previous one because each one exposed what’s become a sizable hole in the Thunder’s defense.
Over the last 10 games, the Thunder has allowed 11.5 made 3-pointers on average. Teams are shooting a scorching 44.6 percent on OKC over that same span. Sunday was the fourth time in the past 10 games that the Thunder gave up exactly 13 3-pointers. The Lakers did it twice in five days, and the Clippers also joined the club.
With a sound plan to find the open man via simple ball movement, Dallas took its turn, picking apart the Thunder from the beginning. The Mavs were 7-for-14 from 3-point range at halftime. They then made their first four attempts in the third quarter, the first coming just 57 seconds in. The deep bomb by Dirk Nowitzki forced a disgusted Scott Brooks to call an uncharacteristically early timeout. His team trailed by 14.
Thirty seconds later, Jose Calderon splashed in another 3 for the Mavs.
Five different Mavericks made at least one 3-pointer, with Calderon and Vince Carter leading the way with four apiece. Their team-wide attack allowed them to make up for relatively quiet nights from Nowitzki (17 points on 6-for-12 shooting) and Monta Ellis (nine points on 2-for-7 shooting).
“We wanted to keep the ball hopping,” said Nowitzki. “We didn’t really want it to stay on the strong side too much. And it helps if you shoot the 3-ball like that. They were switching some. They were showing some in our pick and rolls. That meant the weak side pass was there. And we had a good night from 3.”
That sharpshooting also showed why the Mavs, even as the Thunder’s best-case scenario for a first-round matchup, could still put up a pretty good postseason fight and prevent a quick four-game exit against the Thunder.
“If we attack from all angles and have multiple guys score, we’re a tough team to play,” Nowitzki said.
Of course, the Thunder was without three starters in Russell Westbrook (rest), Thabo Sefolosha (calf) and Kendrick Perkins (groin). All three are pivotal pieces that can and will improve the Thunder’s overall defense, not just its 3-point defense.
But defending the arc has long been an on-again, off-again issue for OKC, and it currently ranks among the biggest concerns.
“We didn’t control the basketball,” said Brooks. “The basketball had too much freedom. They were moving us around. They dictated the game with their movement and their ball movement. And that’s what happens when you’re playing against a great 3-point shooting team.”
What’s even more troubling is the Thunder is now playing a game of anything-you-can-do-I can do-better and getting sucked into its opponents’ style by letting 3-pointers fly at an alarming rate.
Over the last 10 games, the Thunder is averaging 28 3-pointers, a number that would rank OKC, an average 3-point shooting team, first in the league by more than two per game.
“Normally, 24 to 25 is a better range for us,” Brooks said.
Derek Fisher’s hot hand has helped the Thunder’s accuracy, and the addition of Caron Butler appears to be a much-needed boost as well. But everyone else outside of Kevin Durant is streaky.
When the shots fall, the problem isn’t as pronounced.
When they don’t, the defense hasn’t been there to bail out the Thunder.
“Open 3s are usually a result of breakdowns,” said Nick Collison. “Overall, we have to be a lot better, at the point of the ball, covering our man, sometimes it’s screening action. All that, we’ve got to get better and more consistent.”