Can one play, early in the first quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, change a series? The Oklahoma City Thunder certainly hope so.
After falling behind by double digits early, Kevin Durant seemed to have had enough. With his Thunder looking sluggish and trailing by nine points with just over a minute left in the first quarter, Durant drove into the lane and elevated until he was eye-level with the rim, and threw down an aggressive slam over Brendan Haywood that seemed to awaken his team. From then on, OKC was able to match every move that Dallas made, and eventually was able to pull away for a 106-100 win on Thursday to even the series at a game apiece.
Dirk Nowitzki finished with 29 points, five rebounds, and five assists, but wasn’t anywhere near as dominant as he was during his 48-point performance in Game 1. The Thunder largely fronted Nowitzki defensively, and brought baseline double-team help to force the ball out of his hands.
On the Thunder’s side, Durant was big in total, but James Harden had his highest scoring game of the postseason, pouring in 23 points on just nine shots in over 32 minutes of action. But something that will most certainly be talked about before Game 3 is the fact that starting point guard Russell Westbrook was on the bench as this one came to its conclusion.
“Sticking with Eric (Maynor) over Russell, I thought Eric did a good job,” Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said, in a press conference streamed live on NBA.com. “Russell is an incredible player, he’s our starting point guard, but we weren’t getting a lot of things done. And his time was to come out, and I stayed with Eric.”
Westbrook was more than fine in this one, and finished with 18 points and four assists. But the group with Maynor was playing at a higher and more cohesive level late, so it’s not surprising that Brooks would stick with the bench squad that was getting it done.
Lest you think that Nowitzki simply didn’t have it in this one the way he did in Game 1, think again. He played all 12 minutes of the final quarter, and scored 16 of his team’s 24 points in that frame. But the rest of the team went just 2 of 12 in the fourth, while the Thunder, led by Harden, shot almost 65 percent to close this one out.
The lack of defense from Dallas is nothing new — as dominant as Nowitzki was in Game 1, OKC was within reasonable reach in the final minutes, and let’s not forget, Durant finished that game with 40. If the Mavs are to take command of this series, it will be as a result of their supreme execution on the offensive end of the floor.
With the series tied heading into Game 3, there are a few things to watch. Can Nowitzki once again dominate as he did in Game 1? Can the Thunder figure out the proper lineup to use late, as they did in Game 2? And most importantly, can OKC perform with its All-Star starting point guard possibly questioning his ability?
As they say, this is why we watch.