Dallas 93, at Oklahoma City 87 (Dallas leads 2-1)
Offensive Ratings: Dallas 104.3, Oklahoma City 98.7
There was a meme after Game Two of the Western Conference Finals that went something like this: By riding his second unit for the entire fourth quarter and winning, Scott Brooks had earned his stripes as a head coach with a difficult yet successful decision. In the wake of Thursday, I had the same thought. In Saturday's Game Three, however, Brooks' lineups loomed equally large in a negative sense as the Dallas Mavericks beat the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Oklahoma City Arena to reclaim home-court advantage in the series.
Before the game, Brooks told reporters that he's unlikely to consider changing his starting lineup until next season. It's understandable that Brooks would want to avoid such a dramatic move midway through the conference finals, but the Thunder's starting five keeps putting the team in a hole. During Game Three, Oklahoma City was outscored by nine points when both teams had their starters on the floor, moving the Thunder to -26 in this series with those lineups.
This time, the bench was unable to turn things around during the first quarter. Oklahoma City never got anything going offensively during a 12-point period that forced the Thunder to play from behind all night long.
Brooks finally changed things during the third quarter, when he went small with Kevin Durant at power forward--the same configuration that helped win Game Two. Thereafter, Oklahoma City outscored Dallas by 14 points, but the deficit was too large to make up. Dirk Nowitzki made just enough plays down the stretch to hold off the Thunder's comeback.
If Oklahoma City is going to play with just one big man, which has worked the last two games, that lone post player ought to be Nick Collison. Inexplicably, Brooks has favored Kendrick Perkins over Collison. Collison played the entire fourth quarter, but before that he'd seen just 12 minutes of action to Perkins' 30 and Serge Ibaka's 24. Brooks likes Perkins' veteran presence on the floor, but he's proven overmatched against Dallas' athletic front line and is clearly operating at far less than 100 percent. Ibaka was even worse; the Thunder was outscored by 19 points with him on the floor during Game Three.
As throughout this postseason, Oklahoma City was most effective with the foursome of Collison, Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook together. That group was +14 during its 18 minutes of action, outscoring the Mavericks in every single stint. Even if he doesn't want to start Collison and Harden, Brooks must maximize the minutes they play with Durant and Westbrook.
In fairness to Brooks, there's only so much he can do on a night where his team misses its first 16 attempts beyond the three-point line before Westbrook hit a desperation attempt in the closing moments. Dallas tightened up its defense and avoided breakdowns, but the poor shooting reflected an off night for the Thunder more than it did the Mavericks' D. Durant in particular had several good looks among his eight misses from beyond the arc. It simply wasn't his night.
Shawn Marion does deserve credit for containing Durant. That meant Dallas had to provide less help and allowed more defensive attention on other Oklahoma City players. Jason Terry also stepped up his defense on Harden, who got no good looks within the half-court offense. Both of Harden's buckets came in transition; otherwise he was 0-of-7 from the field.
Marion was excellent at the other end of the floor, contributing 18 points on 9-of-13 shooting. Those scores were important for the Mavericks on a night where Dirk Nowitzki was mostly shut down by Ibaka and Collison. Through the first three quarters, Nowitzki scored just eight points on 3-of-11 shooting. Even during the final period, when he led Dallas with 10 points, Nowitzki needed 12 possessions for them.
Overall, this was the Mavericks' worst offensive outing since they blew a 23-point lead against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game Four of their first-round series. Dallas bore little resemblance to the efficient outfit that boasts by far the league's most efficient playoff offense. Yet the Mavericks still claimed the upper hand in this series by virtue of taking advantage of the Thunder's ineffective lineups.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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