May 24, 2011
Go ahead. You can call it a meltdown.
Just don't call it surprising. Or destructive. Or damning, or damaging, or poisonous. This was supposed to be what happened to Oklahoma City, if it kept playing like Oklahoma City. Because throughout the 43 minutes of Monday's Game 4 that saw Oklahoma City up 15 and coasting throughout, we still were shown two distinct Oklahoma City teams. One defended, got out in transition, and score effortlessly.
The other? Even in near-victory, it looked terrible.
And "the other" was well in charge down the stretch. Simple, obvious screen and roll basketball that was easily sussed out by Dallas. Kevin Durant(notes) either not working hard enough off the ball to develop good spacing or passing angles or a spot on the floor to work with, or Kevin Durant completely giving up on the play (even Daequan Cook(notes) seems to move more off the ball; and he was on the bench) after the initial screen and roll didn't work.
Credit Dallas, by the way. The moving feet of Jason Kidd(notes) and Shawn Marion(notes) were incredible, at any age, and Tyson Chandler(notes) was brilliant in his attempts to shade, well, just about anything that moved. Following without overplaying, in a way that I hope Joakim Noah(notes) watched from his hotel room in Florida.
The Thunder deserve a bit of guff, though. Scott Brooks has not been able to shake up that team's half-court offense, which was pretty miserable throughout. Because Dallas (read: Dirk Nowitzki(notes)) started hitting shots in the fourth quarter, OKC had no chances to run, and this is where the Thunder came to hide. It wasn't pretty.
Dirk was, by the way, very pretty.
I understand that he's been typically this brilliant in the years since everyone decided to slough him off following the Finals and then Golden State Warriors embarrassments of 2006 and 2007, but he really has changed during this postseason. There is a consistent potency and drive to his attack that, I'm sorry, wasn't there over the last two playoff runs. Maybe it's the difference between deciding to shoot after four spins around your defender (this year) versus two (the last few years; where Dirk still put up ridiculous scoring and efficiency numbers), or maybe it's just the luck of the matchups, but I remain in awe.
Because it should have been a hellish spring for Dirk. Nic Batum, Gerald Wallace(notes), Lamar Odom(notes), Ron Artest(notes), Pau Gasol(notes), Serge Ibaka(notes), Nick Collison(notes); for whatever reason, on two difference sides of the ball, this lot should have been enough to drive Nowitzki's game down into the floorboards. These are matchups that had the potential for destruction.
And yet, playoff averages of 28.6 points on 51 percent shooting, and that's in a five-week strain of play that has seen his little buddies (be they J.J. Barea(notes), Jason Kidd, or Jason Terry(notes)) dominate the ball for long stretches. The stats aren't much improved from the last few postseasons, but there is a difference, especially late. What last year was a "ooh, almost went down; still a good shot, though" is now a "how do you stop that?" He's closer to the rim, and as a result he's closer to the Finals.
(And, NBA nerds; he's doing this to Nick Collison! I know you know.)
Now I hope you know to not prattle on too much on an Oklahoma City Thunder team that is, in all honesty, not playing as well as it should. From the coach to the stars to the helpers, this is a team that has a lot to figure out. It's not just a case of, "don't foul out, James Harden(notes)." It goes deeper. This team has a ton to learn about spacing, rotation work, play-calling, and execution. Notice I didn't toss out nonsense like "guts" or "toughness." You don't get to be a few wins away from the Finals with a core in its early 20s if you don't already have that.
Few basketball minds are as highly regarded as Doug Collins these days, but he had his Bulls running simplistic patterns that Detroit easily picked up on, as they fell at the hands of the Pistons in both the 1988, and 1989 playoffs. Phil Jackson took over after that, only to watch the same thing happen in 1990. Michael Jordan was 26 that year. People doubted, as nobody watching a team lose three straight years to the same team should, but it was just a learning experience.
Kevin Durant has led the NBA in scoring for the last two years, but now he's learning how to lead the playoffs in scoring while facing teams and rotations that can study him for days at a time. This isn't a shot at Durant, who dropped 29 but turned the ball over nine times in Game 4, but he doesn't go get to play the Knicks tomorrow. He won't be flying down to Houston to catch the Rockets as they play their fourth game in five nights. Shawn Marion will be there, again, in Game 5. He knows what kind of gum you chew, where Jason Kidd is going once you and Westbrook run a play together, and what look to give Tyson Chandler when Tyson doesn't help as much as he should.
And this is tough to get used to. These are things that Dirk Nowitzki, even after that brilliant turn in 2006, hasn't always warmed to. But for Oklahoma City, it's so early. It's so early.
For Dallas? It is so on.