Earl K. Sneed recaps Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, as the Dallas Mavericks jumped out to a big lead on the Oklahoma City Thunder's home floor before holding on late despite cold-shooting nights for Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry.
OKLAHOMA CITY — With his squad locked in a Western Conference Finals series that has been defined by how well each team’s role players have played around their main superstars, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle entered Game 3 knowing that it would take a total team effort in order to reclaim the home-court advantage.
Although Mavericks leading scorer Dirk Nowitzki had claimed the individual edge over back-to-back scoring champion Kevin Durant through the first two games of the best-of-seven series, the Oklahoma City Thunder returned home with things knotted at a game apiece following a 106-100 win in Dallas in Game 2 on Thursday night. Two nights later, however, the Mavs looked to return the favor, hoping to continue the trend of the first two games after both teams claimed a win in games where their bench outperformed the other.
“Our team has to outperform their team,” Carlisle said before the pivotal third showdown. “They’ve got some guys that are very dynamic individual talents. Our team is built a little differently. We’re a group that’s a little dependent on one another more than a lot of the teams left playing, so it’s one of the things I love about our team. Our collective spirit that we play with and our collective will have got to rise up right now, and that’s where it’s at.”
Facing a hostile crowd at the Oklahoma City Arena, the Mavericks looked to do what they managed to pull off twice in the regular season, taking the court collectively while hoping to steal a game on the Thunder’s home floor. And with Nowitzki struggling for the better part of three quarters, the Mavericks would indeed have to rely on a collective effort until their leading scorer and his sidekick, sixth man Jason Terry, finished matters off, as the visiting Dallas team jumped out to a big lead before holding on late to a 93-87 victory.
The Mavericks would show that collective spirit from the opening tipoff, starting the game on a 13-4 run led by swingman DeShawn Stevenson and the team’s ability to capitalize off of defensive stops. The lead would then quickly balloon to double figures behind the perimeter shooting of point guard Jason Kidd and sharpshooter Peja Stojakovic, while Dallas’ zone defense forced the Thunder into contested shots. And with Oklahoma City just 4-for-17 in the period, while also committing six turnovers, the Mavericks easily jumped out to a lead as large as 17 before taking a 27-12 advantage after one period of play.
Dallas’ edge would cap off at a 23-point lead when a 20-4 run came to a close in the second quarter. But the Thunder seized some late momentum before heading into the locker room, trimming the Mavs’ lead to 52-36 at the halftime intermission with Dallas forward Shawn Marion and Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook equaling each other with 12 first-half points for their respective squads.
“We came out and did what we needed to do,” Marion said. “We started being really aggressive on both ends of the floor. We took them on in anything and everything we wanted to do on both ends of the floor. … We wanted to make sure that they felt our presence out there. We came out and were aggressive on both ends of the floor and that’s it.”
With Nowitzki just 2-for-5 for five points and Marion hounding Durant to 2-for-10 shooting despite his 10 points through two quarters, both teams needed their supporting cast more than in the two games before. And with the Thunder 0-for-8 from 3-point range compared to 5-for-9 from deep for Dallas, the visiting Mavericks outshot the home team after 24 minutes of play, 52.5 percent to 29.4 percent.
“Great defensive effort, I think, early on. ‘Trix [Marion] really taking the challenge. I thought Stevenson was great early, and that really set our offense up in the first half,” Nowitzki explained with high regard for the play of his teammates.
An aggressive Kidd came out of the break looking for his own shot, draining a long jumper and a running floater for a personal 4-0 run to start the third quarter. The future Hall of Famer would continue to be called upon to command the Mavs’ offense with Nowitzki’s rare cold-shooting night still not slowing his team down.
The Thunder’s building frustration would finally spill over when Westbrook was assessed a technical foul after shoving Nowitzki following a dead ball. That was only the beginning of more physicality, after Mavericks center Tyson Chandler also picked up a tech for an elbow to James Harden’s face.
But with the Thunder on an 8-0 run to climb to within 13, Nowitzki battled through his shooting slump to drain a timely 3-pointer, giving his team enough of a boost to take a 70-56 lead into the fourth quarter.
Still, the Thunder refused to go quickly, trimming the Dallas lead to 76-64 and forcing Carlisle to call a timeout with 8:57 remaining after a Harden breakaway dunk. But after Westbrook made it just a 10-point game, Nowitzki immediately answered with a jumper to keep the Thunder at bay. However, even the 10-time All-Star couldn’t keep the Thunder from cutting its deficit to just eight after a Westbrook score with just 6:31 remaining, as Oklahoma City tried to replicate Portland’s comeback from 23 down in Game 4 of the Mavs’ first-round series.
“Again, basketball is about runs, 6-0 run, 10-0 run, and you just try to minimize that,” Kidd explained. “For a defensive team, you try not to let them get off a 10-nothing run. And they made a run at us, but nobody panicked. The guys that needed to touch the ball touched the ball and they made plays. … We understand that we have given up leads and we’ve lost games, and this was just another we could draw back from. I don’t think guys brought [Game 4 in Portland] up, but just understood we’ve got to finish this the right way.”
The Thunder’s comeback would continue, despite a driving Nowitzki score midway through the period. But the 7-footer’s midrange jump shot with 3:57 left not only quieted a spirited Oklahoma City crowd, it also put the Thunder in an 84-75 hole. And again, the Thunder’s inability to knock down an outside shot would prove costly, missing wide-open perimeter jumpers and unable to climb any closer than four, before a resurgent Jason Terry drained a jumper to put the Mavericks up 86-78 with only 1:42 remaining on the game clock after a timeout by Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks.
“[Nowitzki and Terry] both made some key plays for us and the key was we were able to get enough stops,” Carlisle explained.
Nowitzki then drained a 16-footer with 42.8 ticks left to give the Mavs an 88-80 margin, before Westbrook ended a 0-for-16 drought from 3-point range on the next possession. The Mavs’ go-to man then calmly put the game away with a 2-for-2 trip to the foul line with 23.3 seconds left and his team ahead six, leading to Terry’s perfect pair at the charity stripe and game-sealing steal in the final seconds to once again give the Mavericks the home-court advantage and a 2-1 series lead.
Despite a slow start offensively, Nowitzki matched Marion for team-high honors with 18 points, with No. 41 hitting just 7-of-21 from the floor but bolstered by Marion’s 9-of-13 shooting.
“I thought Shawn Marion was great today on both ends of the floor and he gets a lot of credit,” Nowitzki pointed out.
And with Terry also struggling, finishing 3-for-12, Kidd too elevated his play, matching the sixth man’s 13 points and dishing out eight assists to boot.
“Guys stepped up. Everybody is gonna look at Dirk and everybody expects superhuman things every time he’s on the floor, but he’s human. He and JET [Terry] had a bad night, but we kept playing as a team and, again, we’ve always won and lost as a team. Hopefully those two guys will have a better outing come Monday,” Kidd said.
“JET and myself were off, so I guess we’ll take the win, if our top two shooters and top guns are off like that and we still won the game. That’s a tribute to our defense,” Nowitzki added.
Meanwhile, Durant couldn’t shed Marion’s lockdown defense all night long, finishing 7-of-22 from the floor for his 24 points, but grabbing 12 rebounds in the loss. And although Westbrook led all scorers with his 30 points on 8-for-20 shooting, Kidd’s suffocating defense forced the All-NBA Second Team selection into seven of the Thunder’s 14 turnovers on the night.
“Westbrook had 30 and Durant had 24, so I don’t know how good of a defensive scheme we had, but the big thing is team defense. We’ve gotta make it tough,” Kidd modestly said.
Despite Nowitzki’s and Terry’s struggles, a strong defensive effort allowed the Mavericks to outshoot the Thunder, 43.9 percent to 36.5 percent. And although Chandler snatched down a game-high 15 boards, the Thunder did leave its home court with a 45-37 rebounding edge. But holding true to the trend through two games, the Mavs nabbed the win with a 28-16 edge in bench scoring.
“To hold a very good offensive team to 36 percent shooting at home really won us the game. … Our defense kept being solid and won us the game,” Nowitzki added.
The Mavericks will now head into Game 4 on Monday night with an opportunity to take a commanding 3-1 series lead, hoping to build off of their total team effort on Saturday night with a chance to close the series out back in Dallas and advance to the NBA Finals in Game 5.
“We’ve gotta be even sharper in Game 4,” Nowitzki concluded when looking ahead. “We’ve just got to come out with the same intensity and focus on the defensive end, and I think that’s gonna help us in Game 4.”
Note: The Mavericks look to take two games in Oklahoma City when they face the Thunder in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals on Monday night, with every game in the series coming every other day and tipping off at 8 p.m. CT, airing nationally on ESPN.
Watch parties for all Mavs away games will continue at the American Airlines Center. Watch parties will be inside the arena, and fans are encouraged to wear blue to support the Mavericks.
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