Oklahoma City 103, Dallas 97 (Oklahoma City wins 4-0)
Offensive Ratings: Oklahoma City 118.2, Dallas 110.4
The Oklahoma City Thunder had no business winning Saturday. The defending champion Dallas Mavericks, hoping to extend the series, dominated the third quarter to take a 13-point lead. The Thunder was without center Kendrick Perkins, and their remaining big men were saddled with foul trouble. And none of it mattered, largely because of James Harden.
With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both on the bench at the start of the period, Scott Brooks put the ball in Harden's hands and found a play the Mavericks simply were unable to stop. Harden penetrated the paint time and again, finding surprisingly little resistance at the rim as he finished. When help did come, Harden pitched out for threes. Of Oklahoma City's 20 shots in the fourth quarter, per NBA.com/Stats, 11 were at the rim. Six more were threes. The remaining three were all in the paint. The Thunder completely excised the midrange jumper, often a staple of its offense, and the results were devastatingly effective: Oklahoma City scored 35 points on 22 possessions to come from behind.
The Thunder would not have been able to do it without getting stop on the other end. With Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka and even Kevin Durant sharing defensive duties on Dirk Nowitzki, Oklahoma City held Dallas scoreless for more than three minutes during a 12-0 run to get within one point. Though Nowitzki made all seven of his free throw attempts, he shot 1-of-8 in the final period. And the threes that had helped the Mavericks build their lead stopped falling. They made just one in four attempts in the fourth.
Dallas still closed the deficit to just three points with 33 seconds left, leaving the home team a stop away from the chance to tie. Brooks called Harden's number and was rewarded with his biggest drive of the night, one where Harden was forced right but still got to the rim and finished to knock the Mavericks out of the playoffs. This was a showcase for Harden, and a chance for casual fans to realize he is one of the league's best guards.
More than that, it might have represented a turning point for the Thunder's late-game offense. During the regular season, and the first two games of this series, Oklahoma City relied entirely on Durant and Westbrook down the stretch. As Zach Lowe noted on Twitter, Harden didn't have a single basket in the last three minutes of a game decided by five points or fewer in the entire regular season. He had two Saturday, plus a pair of free throws right on the three-minute mark.
As phenomenal as Durant and Westbrook are, Harden might be the Thunder's best option when it comes to creating easy baskets against a set defense. A play that starts with Harden is also more likely to end with an open shot for a teammate than one initiated by Durant or Westbrook. That's not to say Harden should be the entirety of the Oklahoma City offense, or even the first option, but he has to be a factor late in games. His skills demand it. If Scott Brooks makes that change, it may be more meaningful than just a sweep of this series.
at L.A. Clippers 87, Memphis 86 (L.A. Clippers lead 2-1)
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Clippers 97.2, Memphis 98.3
Whatever twists and turns it takes to get there, we know that the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies are destined to decide most games in this series in the closing seconds. At different points in the last five minutes, both the Clippers and the Grizzlies had apparent control of the game. Memphis, which led from the start of the fourth quarter, went up six with 4:35 to play on a Zach Randolph free throw. That Grizzlies would score just one more free throw until 13 seconds remained in the game.
The Memphis drought allowed the Clippers to surge ahead. Randy Foye's three-pointer with 3:16 left tied the game, the Clippers took the lead at the 2:01 park on a Chris Paul jumper and they were up six after Paul made two free throws with 23 seconds left. The Grizzlies, down to their final timeout, were running out of hope.
15 seconds later, Memphis would take possession with a chance to win with a basket. That required a pair of impossible three-pointers from Rudy Gay, as well as some help from the Clippers at the free throw line. After Eric Bledsoe made his first attempt, the Clippers missed their next five free throws in a row, missing their opportunity to put the Grizzlies away. As useful as his ballhandling ability and quickness to get free are, the Clippers might not want Bledsoe, a 71.8 percent career shooter, to be the one catching the ball in situations where the opponent will foul intentionally. Still, his 1-of-4 performance and Reggie Evans' pair of misses were nearly three points worse than we would have expected given their typical marks. This was bad luck more than poor free throw shooters.
Between Bledsoe's missed free throws, Lionel Hollins called a play to get Gay a jumper coming off a curl. The Clippers defended it well, with Randy Foye flying around the screen the long way to force Gay to up-fake in midair before firing at the buzzer. The shot bounced off and the Clippers escaped. That the Clippers won says relatively little about the balance of power in this series, but is crucial in terms of its eventual outcome. Now Memphis desperately needs a win in Monday's Game 4.
The outcome might have been different had Marc Gasol stayed out of foul trouble. He played 35 minutes, but was off the floor during a key stretch of the fourth quarter, when Hollins was extremely conservative in bringing him back. Memphis was +17 with Gasol on the floor and was outscored by 18 in the 13 minutes he spent on the bench, a remarkable difference. To the extent Hollins can increase Gasol's minutes going forward without overtaxing him, that could change things for the Grizzlies.
Part of why Gasol was so important was his domination of an ineffective DeAndre Jordan. Jordan did not attempt in shot in 18 minutes, had just three rebounds and committed four fouls before Vinny Del Negro drydocked him for the final quarter and a half. Caron Butler started for the Clippers, but had little impact during his 22 minutes, missing five of his seven shots. Nick Young picked up some scoring from the small forward position and Del Negro finished small, using Randy Foye at small forward (against Gay) with Bledsoe's speed and defensive presence alongside Paul in the backcourt. Memphis was unable to take advantage of the mismatch because Foye did a good job of denying the basketball and the guards put pressure on the entry pass. Look for the Grizzlies to be better prepared for that matchup if Del Negro uses the three-guard lineup again in Game 5.
San Antonio 102, at Utah 90 (San Antonio leads 3-0)
Offensive Ratings: San Antonio 115.9, Utah 99.3
Tyrone Corbin made adjustments. The Utah Jazz returned home, and got improved performances from Al Jefferson and Devin Harris (21 points apiece, on 18-of-33 shooting). And none of it mattered. Corbin's strategies might be able to make some difference in his team's level of performance, but they can't overcome the gulf between these teams.
The biggest change Corbin made was extending the minutes of Derrick Favors, who has been arguably Utah's best player in this series. Favors demonstrated immense potential in his 32 minutes, playing with more confidence and aggressiveness offensively than I ever remember seeing from him. Favors wasn't exactly efficient--he missed nine of his 14 shots from the field and half of his 10 free throw attempts--but he also had 11 rebounds in 32 minutes, six of them offensive and several of his own misses. And Favors made a huge impact on defense with his work against the pick-and-roll and two blocks, one of them a spectacular rejection.
Still, the Jazz was outscored by seven with Favors on the floor, only marginally better than the team did with him on the bench (-5 in 16 minutes). The big lineup just hasn't been able to match up with San Antonio's shooters; it was -6 in about 17 minutes, which accounted for most of Favors' deficit. Utah's best frontcourt was Favors, DeMarre Carroll and Enes Kanter, but that probably says more about San Antonio struggling with DeJuan Blair on the floor than anything else.
The Jazz simply can't find enough scoring on a regular basis. Paul Millsap has struggled since an impressive Game 1, shooting 8-of-23 from the field over his last two games. Gordon Hayward, who looks exhausted from the heavy minutes he logged in April and trying to chase Manu Ginobili around in this series, shot 1-of-10 on Saturday and is at 23.1 percent for the series. Corbin may be able to extend Favors' minutes at Millsap's expense, as he did in the second quarter, but at some point none of this matters.
On defense, Utah did a much better job of walling off the paint from Tony Parker penetration. So Parker simply did his damage from midrange, making six of his nine 11 attempts outside the paint, including four pull-ups from the right elbow. Parker still scored 27, and the Spurs continued to generate open three-point looks with their ball movement. So their offense remained too efficient for the Jazz to keep up.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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