Well, Thunder coach Scott Brooks is tempted to try the ultimate gamble—the invisible defender.
That’s right, nothing. Nobody. Maybe just someone shouting, “Boo!” or “Don’t miss!” whenever Nowitzki loads up to shoot in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday night.
Brooks surely was joking Wednesday when he suggested not guarding Nowitzki. Brooks wasn’t laughing, though, because he was still awed and frustrated by what happened in the opener, when the big German made 12 of 15 field goals and set a playoff record by hitting all 24 of his free throws on his way to 48 points, the most by anyone this postseason.
“There were nine shots that he made, no matter what you did, you couldn’t have guarded him any better,” Brooks said. “We put smalls (on him), we put medium-sized guys on him, we put big guys on him, we put everybody on him. We tried to take it out of his hands. The only thing we didn’t do was not guard him.
“Maybe tomorrow night, if we want to do something different, we don’t challenge him. We play a zone and let him go free.”
Nowitzki simply had one of those nights superstars have, making almost everything he put up and getting to the foul line when he didn’t.
His efficiency was phenomenal: 48 points on just 15 shots. He didn’t pad it with any 3-pointers, either. Heck, he didn’t even try any, despite being an NBA-best 60 percent from behind the arc this postseason.
He figures the Thunder will try something different in Game 2. Rather than trying to guess along, he said Wednesday, “Whatever comes, comes.”
“I’m going to try to attack like I always do,” he said. “If it’s not there, I can swing it, pick and roll. We’ve got a lot of options out there. We have a deep bench. So I don’t feel the pressure to force shots, and that’s the good thing about this team.”
Because Nowitzki had such a historic performance, it’s easier for the Thunder to find some positives in Game 1, starting with them keeping things close to the end.
Although Dallas went up by 16 early in the fourth quarter, Oklahoma City rallied to get within five. The Thunder also scored 112 points, 15 more than the Mavericks had allowed all postseason.
So Oklahoma City fans have to be thinking that if Nowitzki misses a few more, and Westbrook makes a few more, the Thunder can still go back across the Red River with a split. It’s also worth noting they’ve yet to lose consecutive games this postseason.
Durant scored 40 points in the opener, but was overshadowed by Nowitzki and was held back by Westbrook’s woes. Late in the third quarter, the misfiring point guard had attempted more shots than the NBA’s scoring leader the last two seasons.
Westbrook still managed to score 20 points because, like Nowitzki and Durant, he got to the foul line a lot. But the Thunder would be much tougher for the Mavs to slow if he starts scoring on drives to the rim, upping the game’s tempo.
“It was one of those nights,” Westbrook said. “I couldn’t do too much. I got to the line, was aggressive, I just didn’t make none of my shots.”
Westbrook has struggled against Dallas all season.
In four games, counting the playoffs, he’s made 17 of 59 shots, a wretched 29 percent. The Mavericks have handled him with a team concept, using a wall anchored by center Tyson Chandler(notes) to keep Westbrook from getting comfortable in the paint.
Dallas coach Rick Carlisle is counting on his club to do a better job defending everyone on the Thunder. He was upset about the points allowed, especially giving up more than 30 points in each of the last two quarters. The Mavs also put them on the foul line 43 times.
“If we get in offensive shootouts with this team, that’s not our game,” Carlisle said. “We have to defend a lot better. I understand that they’re a different kind of team, but our attention to detail has to be better in Game 2. Our focus has to be better.”
The Mavs haven’t lost since blowing a big, late lead in Game 4 of their first-round series against Portland. Their roll of seven straight playoff wins shatters the previous club-best of four, and is starting to become among the best in NBA history.
This is the 33rd time a team has won at least seven in a row in the playoffs; 18 have made it to at least eight in a row, including the Lakers and Magic last season, according to research by STATS LLC.