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Friday, May 10, 2024

Mavericks Silence Thunder, Even Series at 1-1

For the first time in the 2024 playoffs, the young Oklahoma City Thunder looked young--and for the first time in the 2024 playoffs, the Thunder lost a game, as the Dallas Mavericks drained 18 three pointers in a 119-110 victory to knot the series at 1-1 and swipe homecourt advantage from the Western Conference's top seeded team. Luka Doncic and P.J. Washington tied for team-high honors with 29 points. Doncic shot 11-21 from the field (including 5-8 from three point range) while also grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing for seven assists. Washington set his playoff career-high for scoring in the first half alone with 19 points and then had a solid second half as well while also leading the Mavericks with 11 rebounds. His 7-11 three point shooting was the decisive--and unexpected--factor for the Mavericks. Tim Hardaway Jr. had been inactive for the previous four playoff games, but he made a major contribution with 17 points in 19 minutes off of the bench. Kyrie Irving could not find his shot (nine points on 2-8 field goal shooting) but he had a game-high 11 assists. 

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander--who finished second in 2024 regular season MVP balloting--had another MVP-caliber performance with a game-high 33 points, a game-high 12 rebounds, and a team-high eight assists. However, only two other Thunder players scored in double figures--Jalen Williams had 20 points, and Chet Holmgren scored 11 points--and that was just not enough to overcome Dallas' balance (five players in double players) and long-range sniping. It can be risk to rely on high variance three point shooting and it remains to be seen if the Mavericks can either sustain this or find other ways to beat the Thunder, but there is no doubt that it is difficult to beat a team that shoots 18-37 (.486) from beyond the arc.

Hubie Brown provided the ESPN color commentary for this game. Brown provided the color commentary when Philadelphia beat Dallas 120-116 on Sunday March 3, and as far as I know this is just his second playoff game this year (the first was Indiana's 121-118 game three overtime win versus Milwaukee). I wish that I knew a way to find out which games he is doing so that if I am not able to watch live then I could record the game and watch later, but I am not aware of a schedule that shows in advance who is doing the TV color commentary for ESPN broadcasts. 

Brown is an astute observer of the game, and I am always interested to compare his thoughts/observations about players and teams with my own, because part of my education as a basketball analyst was listening to Brown all the way back when he worked for CBS in the 1980s. There are several recurring themes to Brown's commentary, and those themes recur because they speak to important aspects of the sport. For example, Brown noted during the second quarter of this game, "Always reward the big guys--power forwards and centers--when they are running hard to score." Perhaps that does not seem profound, but if you have played basketball at any level--or observed basketball, from the lowest levels to the elite levels--then you know that if big men don't think that they will get the ball then they will be a step slow on the fast break, which then results in their team not having an advantage in numbers. Also, big men who are not getting the ball tend to not put forth as much effort on defense. As Shaquille O'Neal once declared, the big dog is not going to guard the house (the painted area) if he is not being fed (the ball). "Stat gurus" dismiss any factor that they cannot figure out how to quantify, but teams that do not involve their big men on offense tend to have poor chemistry, which causes problems at both ends of the court.

Regarding Washington, Brown called him a "hard worker, good defender" while adding, "Tonight everything is opening up for him." The Mavericks' offense relies on Doncic and Irving attracting defensive attention before spraying the ball to three point shooters, who are often deployed in the corners. That approach worked to perfection in this game because Washington hit so many corner three pointers.

The Thunder led the league in three point field goal percentage during the regular season (.389) but they shot just 10-30 (.333) from beyond the arc in this contest. That would not have necessarily been fatal had they defended the three point line better but the combination of not making a high volume of three pointers while giving up a high volume of three pointers left the Thunder with no margin for error.

Brown is a big fan of Gilgeous-Alexander, praising his ability to "stop on a dime to create space," and noting, "The thing that you love about him is that he will create space and find the open man." Brown observed how difficult it is for the 6-2 Irving to check the 6-6 Gilgeous-Alexander: "Once he (Gilgeous-Alexander) fades back, you have to make up that distance" and that leads to either uncontested shots or fouls if Irving lunges too far to close that gap. Brown added that Gilgeous-Alexander is "silky smooth. He's moving and it doesn't seem like he's moving."

A key stretch during the game happened midway through the third quarter. Hardaway Jr. checked in at the 5:17 mark with Dallas clinging to an 80-77 lead, and he scored Dallas' next 10 points as the Mavericks charged to a 90-79 advantage with 3:41 left in the stanza. The Thunder never got closer than four points the rest of the way. Brown was impressed not only with the quick strike scoring exploits of Hardaway Jr. but the overall play of Dallas' reserves: "This second unit that is on the floor, their quickness is showing up at both ends of the floor." Brown also said that Dallas' defense combined with high percentage three point shooting is keeping the "beep beep" Thunder from activating their running game.

Near the end of the game, Brown pointed out that the low number of turnovers (10 by each team) is "amazing" considering the level of physicality by both teams, and he concluded that the keys for Dallas' victory were high energy, unselfishness, and great scoring from their frontcourt players, while the biggest problem for the Thunder was how many open three pointers that they missed.

Each playoff game is its own distinct entity, a reality that is so often forgotten or ignored during the postseason as every team that wins is praised to the sky while every team that loses is castigated to extremes. One cannot project the outcome of this series just based on game two, but the factors that Brown mentioned will go a long way to deciding who wins the race to four games. Can Dallas sustain this energy level and also continue to get great scoring output from the frontcourt to supplement the wizardry of Doncic and Irving? Will the Thunder keep missing open three pointers? I picked Dallas to win this series in six games, so I think that Dallas outplaying Oklahoma City is sustainable, but the upcoming games will almost certainly not feature Dallas shooting .486 from three point range with Washington scoring 29 points--but Irving will likely not score less than 10 points in a game the rest of the series, either.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:37 AM



At Friday, May 10, 2024 2:10:00 PM, Blogger Todd Ash-Duah said...


I think this series between the Mavs and the Thunder will be the best series of the playoffs. As an OKC fan, I also picked Dallas to win in six games, mainly due to the size advantage they should enjoy (which they did in Game 2) and because as much as I love Shai, the Mavericks have the best player in the series in Luka. But either way, it's very exciting to watch two very good teams who I could see matching up against each other in the playoffs multiple times in the next few seasons. Hopefully, P.J. Washington doesn't continue to shoot like Steph Curry lol.

At Friday, May 10, 2024 3:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree this series has the potential to be the best series of the first two rounds. Hopefully, there will be some even greater series in the Conference Finals and the NBA Finals.


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