Credit: Brett Deering/Getty Images
Russell Westbrook has been a dominant force in the first two games. Shutting him down is a big part of the Mavs' plan for success (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images).
Monday, May 14 at 4:56 PM
Down 0-2 in the First Round of the NBA Playoffs, the Mavericks aren’t technically facing an elimination game against the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight. If they lose, the Mavs will still get the chance to win four straight against the Western Conference’s two-seed and pull off an amazing comeback to move on to the Conference Semi-finals. There is a problem with that plan of action though.
It’s been done, um, never.
Considering a team has never come back from a 0-3 deficit throughout the history of the NBA, it is in the Mavs' best interest to win tonight if they plan on having any chance of winning four games against the Thunder. It’s an all hands on deck situation for the Mavs, who will play in front of what is sure to be the season's rowdiest American Airlines Center crowd in a game that is as must-win as it gets in non-elimination games. The first two games could have easily gone the Mavs’ way and tonight will be no different. There are a number of factors to watch for tonight that will have quite an influence on the outcome.
Thunder forward and league MVP candidate Kevin Durant is averaging 25.5 points so far this series… and that’s a slump for him. Despite shooting only 34%, Durant is still scoring by getting to the line and taking a high volume of shots. Needless to say, this kind of production from Durant is nearly a worst case scenario for the Thunder and shouldn’t be expected to continue, despite Shawn Marion’s elite level of defending.
Durant is just too good to be held down forever. Expect him to get closer to and potentially exceed his regular season scoring levels of 28.0 points per game on nearly 50% shooting. The frightening part for Dallas is that Oklahoma City built their 2-0 series advantage with a below-average Durant. The Mavericks must be ready for him to come alive.
Conversely, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook is playing some of the best basketball of his life. He has shown tremendous improvement in the midrange game that was such a weakness for him in the 2011 Western Conference Finals. Quite frankly, Westbrook has kept the Thunder afloat during this series with his 28.5 points per game on a staggering 52% shooting, well above his respective 23.6 points per game and 46% shooting regular season numbers.
If Westbrook maintains his elite performance early in tonight's game while the Thunder are pulling away, look for Mavs coach Rick Carlisle to switch Marion onto him for a stretch to try and slow him down. If that happens, though, it raises the question of who will guard Durant. The Mavs may have to choose the lesser of two evils and will play with fire if they give Durant any chance to get going. The problem: Westbrook may leave them no choice.
Dirk Nowitzki has been incredible as expected this series, but his supporting cast has lacked at times. If this sounds familiar, it should because it’s the same basic problem the Mavs had in the playoffs from 2005-2010. Last year was obviously different, but we find ourselves analyzing the same issue today.
Jason Terry was on fire in Game One with 20 points through three quarters, but was silenced by Westbrook’s suffocating defense when he was needed in the final frame. Nowitzki was 10 for 19 in Game Two, but the rest of the team shot a paltry 38% in a show of weak support for the Mavs’ superstar. That must change if the Mavericks plan on taking both of these games at home.
The Mavericks’ defense has done a tremendous job of holding the Thunder under their season average in scoring by making them uncomfortable with what they like to do on offense. However, they’ll need to work harder by challenging shots to lower the Thunder’s shooting percentage while finding the offense to complement that defensive effort. If the Mavericks can get more scoring from Terry, Vince Carter, and Jason Kidd while limiting Westbrook and keeping Durant from going off, look for the Mavericks to get their first win in this series. If not, Saturday night will be the Last Chance Saloon for the defending champions and it will likely be a summer full of change in Dallas.
There will be plenty of time for that after concluding this series -- and these playoffs, which are far from over. For now, tonight needs to be treated like a must-win, because that’s exactly what it is. Jason Terry made sure to take note of that.
"Game 3 is like Game 7," Terry said. "Thank you very much."
Kevin Brolan is a contributor to DallasBasketball.com and HoopsAddict.com. Follow him for mind numbing thoughts on basketball, most sports, and general nonsense at @kevinbrolan.