Earl K. Sneed recaps Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, after James Harden and the Oklahoma City Thunder's bench sparked a road win to end the Dallas Mavericks' seven-game playoff win streak and tie the series at 1-1.
DALLAS — Although the Dallas Mavericks aren’t getting ahead of themselves and looking ahead to a potential trip to the NBA Finals against the eventual Eastern Conference champs, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle admitted heading into his team’s Game 2 showdown that he learned something from watching Miami’s 85-75 road win to even its series with the Chicago Bulls at 1-1 on Wednesday night.
Despite his team’s franchise record seven-game postseason winning streak and 6-0 mark at home entering Thursday night’s Game 2, Carlisle was well aware that it could all be gone along with the home-court advantage in an instance. That is if the Oklahoma City Thunder could manage to do exactly what Miami did the night prior, with the visiting squad trying to bounce back from a 121-112 loss to even the series before it shifts to Oklahoma City for Games 3 and 4.
“You want to be playing well, you want to continue to play well,” Carlisle said while disregarding the winning streak. “But a win in Game 1 in a series guarantees you nothing in Game 2, as Chicago would tell you. Game 2 is the game where the losing team in the first game really turns up their level of force and desperation, and you’ve got to be ready for that.”
With that said, the Mavs took the court for Game 2 with their crowd once again joined in unison for a royal blue-out, hoping to match the upset-hungry Thunder’s intensity level from the opening tipoff. But the Dallas team would leave the hardwood with the same feeling the Bulls experienced the night before, falling to a 106-100 defeat to end their postseason win streak and knot the series at a game apiece.
“Usually of you’re a road team and you start in a tough building, usually you go for a split or try to win one, and that’s what they did,” forward Dirk Nowitzki said after the loss.
The Mavericks wouldn’t have a problem matching the Thunder’s energy level to start the game, jumping out to a 17-11 advantage midway through the opening quarter behind athletic scores by forward Shawn Marion and the perimeter shooting of point guard Jason Kidd. Meanwhile, Nowitzki picked back up where he left off at after his epic 48-point performance in Game 1, exploiting a weakness in the Thunder defense by taking advantage of his one-on-one matchup with big man Serge Ibaka.
Kidd’s command of the Dallas offense would then take control of the game, as the future Hall of Famer and Mavericks center Tyson Chandler hooked up on consecutive above-the-rim exchanges to open up a double-digit lead. But back-to-back scoring champion Kevin Durant stepped in and began to lead his squad back into the game, using a 14-point quarter and a thunderous slam over Mavericks big man Brendan Haywood to close the gap to 31-26 in Dallas’ favor after one.
After Durant’s explosive first quarter the Thunder bench took over, with sixth man James Harden and backup point guard Eric Maynor continuing a 20-7 run from the end of the first period to take a 37-35 lead with 9:49 remaining in the first half.
“They came out to play, and I thought their bench really changed the game today,” Nowitzki pointed out. “They attacked us there in the second quarter and Durant was even on the bench, and they made a run and took the lead in the second quarter.”
The Mavericks answered with a heavy dose from their own reserves, as second-string point guard J.J. Barea and sharpshooter Peja Stojakovic got the team back on track with timely scoring and gritty defense, sparking a 13-3 run.
But behind an aggressive Durant and a resurgent Russell Westbrook — bouncing back from his 3-for-15 Game 1 — the Thunder emerged with a 59-57 edge heading into the locker room at the halftime intermission.
Led by 16 first-half points from Durant and 12 more from Westbrook on a combined 11-of-20 shooting, the Thunder outshot the Mavericks through two quarters, 55.6 percent to 50 percent. Meanwhile, Nowitzki’s 13 points and Chandler’s 11 kept the Mavericks close, with Kidd tallying eight points and dishing out five assists at the midway point.
Unlike the first quarter, it would be the Thunder that looked like the more energetic team at the start of the third, continuing an 11-0 run that stemmed from the end of the first half to open up an eight-point edge. Still, the Mavs didn’t panic, firing back into the game with long-range shooting from Kidd and swingman DeShawn Stevenson.
But despite interior toughness provided by Chandler and Marion, Harden’s four-point play to end the third quarter after a foul by sixth man Jason Terry not only ended an 11-2 Dallas run but it also gave the Thunder a 77-76 edge heading into the final 12 minutes of play.
After a relatively quiet three quarters by his standards, Nowitzki began to awaken at the start of the fourth, dueling with Durant shot for shot. In the meantime, Harden continued his assault on the Dallas defense next to Maynor in the backcourt while Westbrook continued to sit on the bench. Harden’s scores at the rim and from behind the 3-point line lended a helping hand to the scoring champ, while the Dallas defense scrambled to find an answer.
The Mavericks in return went to their own spark plug off the bench, with Barea answering with timely perimeter shooting. But after Durant’s stepback jumper found nothing but the bottom of the net, the Mavs faced a 95-90 deficit with 5:50 remaining. Harden also wasn’t done, however, draining a jumper from the top of the key over Terry with 3:15 left on the clock to put the Thunder ahead 10, 102-92.
“It seemed like we had some good things happening in the fourth, but it seemed like we could never really get things going on both ends of the floor. Their bench really stepped up tonight and did a good job. Harden got really hot, and we did a pretty good job of containing everyone else, but their bench stepped up real big tonight,” Marion said.
Nowitzki and the Mavs would continue to fight, with the 7-footer immediately scoring on back-to-back drives to the hoop, before Stevenson sunk a pair of free throws to make it a 102-98 score with 1:03 left.
Thunder big man Nick Collison answered Stevenson’s 2-for-2 trip to the charity stripe with one of his own with 47.8 seconds remaining, but did so just before fouling out on a desperation 3-pointer by Nowitzki.
But after connecting on the first of three foul shots, Nowitzki’s consecutive free throw streak came to an end on the 39th in a row and the second stroke, ending his streak after passing Ray Allen and Ben Gordon at 33 for the longest stretch of its kind in the last five years before nailing the third to make it a four-point game. The Dallas defense forced a 24-second violation and got the ball back in the Mavericks’ possession with 12.7 ticks still remaining. But Stojakovic’s missed 3 from the top of the key found its way into Thabo Sefolosha’s hands, leading to a foul and two more free throws in the final seconds to put the game away for the road team.
The Thunder finished the night outshooting the Mavericks, 55.7 percent to 43.8 percent. Durant’s 24 points on 11-of-23 from the floor and Harden’s 23 on 6-for-9 and 4-for-7 from 3-point range off the bench paced the Thunder with four players in double figures. And despite not playing a second in the final period, Westbrook amassed 18 points.
“If you would have told me they leave Westbrook out in the whole fourth quarter and we don’t get stops to win, that would have been tough. … Harden made 23 points on nine shots. That’s a killer,” Nowitzki simply said.
And albeit in a losing effort, Nowitzki finished with a game-high 29 points (16 in the fourth) on 10-of-17 shooting. Chandler added a double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds, while Kidd’s 13 points — finishing with seven assists — and Barea’s 11 gave the Mavericks four players in double figures as well.
Despite forcing the Thunder into three more turnovers, 15 to 12, the Mavericks equaled Oklahoma City with 17 points scored off the giveaways. But the most telling statistic was bench scoring, with Harden leading the Thunder to a 50-29 advantage in points from the second units, after the Mavericks’ reserves took home a 53-22 margin in Game 1.
“They outplayed us in every part of the game. They had more energy, their bench played better, they made more shots and they made some tough shots down the stretch, so give all the credit to them. I can’t remember the last time we lost the battle of the bench. It was going to happen at some point and it happened tonight and I give them a lot of credit. They were more aggressive and they made more big shots. Their bench just played better tonight,” Barea explained.
“I thought our bench was the better bench in Game 1, and their reserves really took that challenge today and they came out swinging and really took it to us, and we were never ready for their reserves today,” Nowitzki added.
The 1-1 series now swings to Oklahoma City, where the Mavericks snatched two wins during the regular season, with Games 3 and 4 both coming in the Thunder’s unfriendly confines.
“They have the momentum,” Nowitzki admitted. “So, we’ve got to go up there in a tough environment and a very loud building and execute and play Mavs basketball and get back to getting stops like we did in the first two series, and I like our chances.”
Note: The Mavericks will travel to Oklahoma City to face off with the Thunder in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals on Saturday night, with every game in the series coming every other day and tipping off at 8 p.m. CT, airing nationally on ESPN.
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