The first three games of the first-round series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks made a few things very clear — that the Thunder have an overwhelming advantage that the Mavericks are only likely to overcome under rare circumstances that involve Kevin Durant missing 26 shots and game-winning tip-ins getting put up just a little bit late. Anything else will probably conclude with an OKC win.
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Well, Durant had another relatively poor game in Saturday's Game 4 at American Airlines Center. Unfortunately for the Mavericks, co-star Russell Westbrook and many other Thunder players came through in a closer-than-it-felt 119-108 win that puts them one win from advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals for a likely matchup with the San Antonio Spurs.
Durant was not at his best, shooting 7-of-20 from the field and a very uncharacteristic 4-of-8 from the line for 19 points to break a streak of 67 straight games with at least 20 points over the regular season and postseason. However, Durant ensured he would earn headlines for other reasons when he was ejected for this flagrant-2 foul to the head of rookie wing Justin Anderson in the final minute:
Durant and Anderson did not appear to show any animosity towards each other after the game:
Justin Anderson and Kevin Durant just took a picture together in the hallway of the arena with their high school coach Stu Vetter.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) April 24, 2016
It seems unlikely that Durant would be suspended for Monday's Game 5 in Oklahoma City, but the league may take a closer look at the foul given the context of this series. Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle complained about perceived dirty play from Durant and others after Game 3, and the teams got into a brief altercation earlier in Game 4 after Anthony Morrow refused to give the ball up to Salah Mejri during a stoppage. Perhaps Durant will be made to sit out as a message to both squads to exercise control.
However, the Thunder will probably feel good about their chances to close out the series in five no matter if their superstar is available. That's because OKC appears to have found go-to schemes and matchups to control this series at both ends. That's largely because of the play of Westbrook, who balanced iffy shot-making (25 points on 7-of-19 FG and 8-of-12 FT) with terrific point-guard play, especially in the pick-and-roll. His 15 assists (and two turnovers) were emblematic of excellent playmaking and manipulation of space.
The biggest beneficiary of Westbrook's passing was reserve center Enes Kanter, who put up a playoff career-high 28 points on a startlingly efficient 12-of-13 FG. Kanter routinely scored on questionable interior defense from the Mavericks, including after rim protector Salah Mejri went to the locker room with a right hip injury in the fourth quarter.
Kanter has been a consistent threat in this series, which maybe shouldn't come as a shock considering he's often going against the likes of David Lee and Dirk Nowitzki whenever he gets the ball. Regardless, he and Dion Waiters (12 points on 4-of-5 FG) have been tremendous in Games 3 and 4, combining for 80 points on 29-of-38 shooting. Conventional wisdom says that role players perform worse on the road, but that certainly hasn't been true for OKC.
That top-to-bottom production has proved problematic for the Mavericks, a hurting team with an increasingly threadbare rotation. After entering the series with Chandler Parsons out, Lee unavaialble for the first two games, and J.J. Barea hobbled, the Mavs have seen Deron Williams miss Game 3 and play just a minute in Game 4 before re-aggravating his abdominal strain to the point where Carlisle expects him to be done for the season. They also may now face the loss of Mejri, their only legitimate shot-blocking threat around the rim (unless you count JaVale McGee).
That desperation was evident in Dirk Nowitkzi's performance Saturday. Playing in what could turn out to be his final home playoff game (depending on what happens Monday and next year, of course), Nowitzki poured in 27 points (12-of-21 FG) in 40 minutes and did everything he possibly could to keep the Mavericks within striking distance. A Dallas win never felt likely, but it also seemed apparent that the best player in franchise history would not allow the Mavs to get blown out.
The dynamics of this series were apparent before it started, but things look even worse for the Mavericks four games in. They're going to need a great deal to go right to extend the season past Monday night.
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