(Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Earl K. Sneed reports from Oklahoma City as the defending champion Dallas Mavericks fell to a 0-2 series hole in their first-round series against the second-seeded Thunder.
Game 2 Recap: (7) Mavericks 99 at (2) Thunder 102
OKLAHOMA CITY — Just 48 hours after watching seemingly helplessly as three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant downed the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks with a second game-winning jumper, coach Rick Carlisle preached one clear-cut message to his players: it’s time to get physical.
Reentering Chesapeake Energy Arena and looking to even their first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder at a game apiece following a 99-98 loss on Saturday night, Carlisle and the Mavericks looked to rekindle the playoff intensity that powered the team to last season’s championship. In order to do so, however, Carlisle made it no secret that the team would have to increase its level of physically Monday night after two losses in OKC during the regular season and another in Game 1 by a total of seven points.
The reigning titleholders then went in search of a split on the road before the series shifts to Big D, hoping to keep the hostile venue quiet after missing out on a win two nights prior. But even with the Mavs matching the Thunder’s intensity level, it wouldn’t be enough to avoid another close loss. And despite battling back from a 16-point deficit in the first half led by leading scorer Dirk Nowitzki’s game-high 31 points, the Mavericks (0-2) headed back to Dallas down two games to none after a 102-99 defeat.
“Well, it’s tough,” Nowitzki admitted. “Really, all four games we’ve had here — two in the regular season and two in the playoffs — we’re right there and really we’re just a couple of bounces away from being up 2-0. It’s tough and it’s frustrating, but we’ve gotta keep coming. We’re not gonna lay down.”
“They’ve made one more play than we have in both games, and that’s how playoff basketball is,” Carlisle added. “As my good friend [Texas Rangers manager] Ron Washington would say, ‘That’s how baseball go.’ And you’ve got to give them credit for what they’re doing. We can’t dig ourselves a 16-point hole in the first half. That’s something that’s tough.”
After Thunder big man Serge Ibaka carved up the Dallas defense inside for 22 points in Game 1, it was his fellow interior mate, Kendrick Perkins, who dominated the Mavs to begin the game. Then Nowitzki began to take control for the visiting team, scoring with an array of jumpers before he and Perkins found themselves in a pushing match that resulted in a double-technical foul call.
“It’s just two teams playing hard,” Nowitzki said of the exchange. “I think they really came at us early and we had to respond physically. … He tried to bully me, I bullied back a little bit, talked about some stuff and moved on.”
“Playoff basketball is physical. We don’t like the cheap shots when they give them and they don’t like it when we give them,” Carlisle added. “That’s the nature of competition. I love hard play and clean, competitive playoff series. Throw the ball up and may the best team win. But the dirty [play] has gotta stop. And we don’t want anybody getting hurt out there, either way.”
And with physicality no longer a question, the Mavs trailed 32-24 after the Thunder’s 9-0 close to the opening quarter was capped on Derek Fisher’s buzzer-beating jumper.
Fisher continued to stroke the hot hand entering the second stanza with both Durant and All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook on the bench, connecting on a shot to put the Thunder (2-0) up 36-26 with 9:13 left in the half. When Durant and Westbrook returned, the Thunder stretched the first double-digit lead of the series to as much as 16, before Carlisle switched to a “small-ball” lineup of point guard Jason Kidd, third-year guard Rodrigue Beaubois, swingman Vince Carter, forward Shawn Marion and Nowitzki at center to slowly put a dent in the deficit.
“Actually, that’s what they do. When we sub out, they put Durant at the four sometimes,” Nowitzki said of the lineup. “So, we really just matched up with that. … It worked some, so whatever the game dictates.”
And with Nowitzki first leading a 12-2 run before scoring on consecutive three-point plays to get back in the game, the Mavs climbed as close as within three before trailing by a score of 57-50 at the halftime intermission.
Despite Nowitzki’s 20 first-half points on 8-of-12 shooting to combat 29 combined points from Westbrook and Durant, the Thunder outshot the Mavericks through two quarters, 54.1 percent to 46.2 percent. The Thunder also scored 17 points off Dallas’ nine turnovers. Meanwhile, the Mavs matched the home team’s 16 rebounds at the break while holding a 20-12 edge in points in the paint.
Inserting backup big man Ian Mahinmi into the lineup in place of starting center Brendan Haywood, Carlisle would see his team creep to within one early in the third quarter. And with frequent trips to the free line in the period, Nowitzki and the Mavericks assumed the lead before Perkins’ dunk-tip regained a 68-67 lead for the Thunder and forced a timeout by Carlisle with 4:47 left in the third.
The Mavs didn’t panic, however, settling down after a backdoor cut by sixth man Jason Terry before a transition slam by Delonte West. Still, the Mavs entered the final 12 minutes of play down two, 79-77.
“I love the way we fought back. It was great. Guys hung in and kept their poise,” the coach said with high praise for the play of his team in the second half.
Looking for a spark, the Mavs turned to Terry after his 20-point Game 1 finished with a scoreless final period. The star reserve would kindly oblige this time around, draining a three to put the Mavs in front by one on the scoreboard, 82-81.
Both teams would then stay even before Fisher’s corner three gave the Thunder a 92-88 advantage with 5:25 remaining. But after a timeout, Nowitzki responded with a three-point play to keep his team within an arm’s reach. And following Nowitzki’s two free throws, the.Mavs found themselves down 96-95 with 3:02 left.
After a bank-in by Carter put the Mavs in front, the Thunder reemerged with the lead when a foul by Terry sent Durant to the line, where the sharpshooter connected on two free throws inside the final minute before James Harden padded the lead with a pair at the charity stripe to make it a 100-97 game with 25.5 left on the clock.
A score by Terry with 20.8 remaining kept the Mavs’ pulse beating, before Harden extended the lead with a 2-for-2 trip at the line with 15.6 ticks left. And after Terry missed on two shots from behind the arc to tie, the Mavs found themselves heading back to Dallas down 0-2 in the series.
“It went down to the last possession and unfortunately we couldn’t catch a break,” Marion said of the heart-breaking final seconds. “Just some unfortunate things happened at the end, but it is what it is.”
“We had some great looks that normally go down for us. … If we make some of those shots, maybe we’re sitting here with a split,” Kidd added.
Nowitzki finished the night 10-of-19 from the field while leading five Mavericks in double figures. Marion added 15 points and eight rebounds while battling Durant at the other end. West and Terry each posted 13 points as well to go along with Kidd’s 10 points and seven assists.
Meanwhile, Westbrook led the Thunder yet again with 29 points on 10-of-21 shooting as Durant followed up his 10-of-27 performance with a 5-for-17 outing for 26 points. OKC also finished the night outshooting the reigning champions, 44.8 percent to 41.8 percent, in addition to a 37-35 rebounding edge.
In the loss, the Mavs did finish with a 40-18 advantage in points in the paint and 17-6 margin in second-chance points. But the Mavs surrendered 21 points on their 14 turnovers, scoring 16 points off the Thunder’s 16 giveaways.
The Mavs will now head back to Dallas, taking Tuesday off before returning to practice on Wednesday. The Mavs-Thunder series continues on Thursday night with Game 3 taking place at the American Airlines Center, airing locally on TXA 21 and nationally on TNT at 8:30 p.m. CT.
“We’ve got enough warriors over here, we’re gonna come back Thursday and respond the way we did tonight when we were down 16,” Nowitzki said while looking ahead to Thursday night.
“They held serve. We’ve gotta go home and hold serve,” Carlisle simply added.
The Mavs-Thunder first-round series schedule is as follows:
Game 3: Thunder at Mavericks; Thursday May 3 at 8:30 p.m. CT on TNT/TXA 21
Game 4: Thunder at Mavericks; Saturday May 5 at 6:30 p.m. CT on TNT/TXA 21
Game 5: Mavericks at Thunder; Monday May 7 at 7 p.m. CT on TNT/TXA 21
Game 6: Thunder at Mavericks; Thursday May 10 TBA
Game 7: Mavericks at Thunder; Saturday May 12 TBA