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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Three Adjustments Thunder Need to Make to Beat Mavericks in Game 2

Led by an all-time great playoff performance from Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavericks slaughtered the Thunder 121-112 in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals Tuesday.

Dirk dropped 48 points on 12-of-15 shooting and broke an NBA playoff record for made free throws in a game without a miss by going 22-of-22 from the line.

Kevin Durant tried his best to retaliate, scoring 40 points, but his teammates weren’t up to the task. The Thunder’s performance wasn’t as respectable as the single-digit final deficit suggests; they were outplayed in every aspect of the game.

Any time your opponent shoots 53% from the field and outscores your bench 53-22, you’re in major trouble.

So what does OKC have to do to bounce back and even the series 1-1?

Here are three key adjustments the Thunder can make to win Game 2:

1. Deny Dirk the ball

I know. I know. Easier said than done. Dirk’s on another level right now. Stopping him from doing anything is Mission Impossible-level tough. But if the Thunder hope to win Game 2, they have to take the ball out of Dirk’s hands somehow, and fronting him appears to be the best way to do that.

Thabo Sefolosha was completely ineffective against Dirk after the catch Tuesday, but he did a good job of denying Nowitzki the ball in the third quarter when fronting him with weak side help from Kendrick Perkins. The defensive adjustment frustrated Dirk for a few possessions before Jason Kidd wised up and started lobbing balls over the top to the big German. Game over.

Sefolosha’s size disadvantage (he’s generously listed at 6-foot-7) makes him a poor match for Nowitzki, but if Serge Ibaka can apply the same principles Sefolosha used (with we), the Thunder should be able to cut Dirk’s touches by 5-6 over the course of the game. Considering how Dirk played in Game 1, that’s a big win for OKC.

2. More shots for Durant and Harden

The Thunder are a very good offensive team. The best in the playoffs, actually, if you’re using points per game average as your indicator of success. They’re scoring 103.7 points per game.

With that said, the Mavericks have OKC’s number defensively. When Dallas goes into its matchup zone, it gives the Thunder fits, particularly Russell Westbrook. Jason Kidd is Westbrook Kryptonite. His crafty, 38-year-old ways, combined with terrific help defense from Tyson Chandler, have frustrated Westbrook all season (he averaged 14.3 ppg against Dallas during the regular season and shot just 31.8 percent).

In order to combat both the zone and Westbrook’s struggles, the Thunder need to give Kevin Durant even more touches and make James Harden a bigger part of the offense.

Durant took 18 shots Tuesday and scored 40 points in Game 1. There’s not much room for upward mobility in terms of touches, but KD is by far the Thunder’s most dangerous weapon against Dallas. DeShawn Stevenson and Shawn Marion can’t stay in front of him and can’t touch his jump shot, and Chandler picks up fouls when he attacks the rim. Scott Brooks needs to emphasize Durant as options 1, 2 and 3. The Thunder are wasting possessions if they’re letting Westbrook and Ibaka take a combined 26 shots.

Harden needs more looks as well. He, not Westbrook, is the Thunder’s second best scoring option in this series. He’s a surprisingly effective playmaker (especially out of the pick-and-roll) and the only zonebuster the Thunder have other than Durant.

The second-year reserve took just nine shots in 36 minutes and scored 12 points in Game 1. Increasing his shot count to 12-15 in Game 2 will go a long way toward breaking open Dallas seemingly impenetrable D.

3. Take more risks on defense

This goes hand-in-hand with adjustment no. 1. The Mavericks have the most well executed offense in the playoffs. When you allow them to get in a rhythm, they’ll pick you apart like Turk on Scrubs. Except their surgery has nothing to do with hypnosis.

In Game 1, the Thunder played the Mavs straight up on defense and tried to minimize mistakes. As a result, Dallas shot 53 percent from the field and turned the ball over just 12 times. That’s a major coup for the Mavs considering the advantages OKC has in terms of youth and athleticism.

In order to win, the Thunder need to resort to a different defensive strategy. They need to take Dallas out of its comfort zone. I’m talking guerilla tactics. Fronting Dirk, jumping passing lanes, pressuring Kidd.

As efficient as the Mavs are, they’re not invincible. Take away the two-man game between Kidd and Nowitzki by forcing Kidd to drive (and bringing help defense a beat later, rather than right away) and suddenly Stevenson and Marion are taking more jumpers. That’s a much more tenable situation than giving Dirk free range in the middle of the court.

It’s no easy task switching defensive mentality the way I’m suggesting, but Brooks has to try something. Dallas’ offense is a Gatling gun, and there’s no way OKC is going to beat them by trading fire with an AK-47.

If they take more chances on D, the Thunder can emphasize their strengths by forcing more turnovers and getting out in the break more. Either that or Kidd and Nowitzki will ginsu knife them like a pair goofy-looking ninja warriors. But, hey, they’re doing that already, right?

What’s the harm in trying something different?



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