The Dallas Mavericks, as believed would happen once the postseason began, have exhibited the toughness, the ability to simply not die, that is necessary in order to advance. After dropping another loss by a thin margin to the Oklahoma City Thunder last night and falling down 2-0 in this first round series, however, Dallas is also showing what it’s lacking when compared to last season’s championship squad. It reminds that for any team to win a title, and especially last year’s Mavericks — a sum-of-the-parts masterpiece led by the sorcery of Dirk Nowitzki as well as timely shooting and heady play by just about everyone that played major significance — the fine line between competing tooth-and-nail to the bitter end and actually coming out on top is written in sand on a windy day in the desert.
Coming back from deficit after deficit, playing for crunch time and treating those moments as the prerequisite to victory they often are, is the mark of a champion, but so are the tinier moments; avoiding lost possessions due to turnovers, points chipped in by the likes of Derek Fisher, not picking up cheap fouls on the perimeter. Sometimes too, they aren’t even as simple as a costly mistake or oversight; sometimes the feelers in the fingertips in the midst of a shooter’s release are just different enough for two good-looking Jason Kidd three-point attempts to bounce out, or for Nowitzki’s last shot to hop off the rim, suspend in air for a moment before landing on the dimple that makes the ball slide out, rather than off the glass and in as we saw Kevin Durant’s do in Game One. Sometimes everyone but the ball does their job.
Without a doubt, there is skill and fire that have readily contributed to the Thunder’s 2-0 series lead. For every deficit Dallas makes up, Oklahoma City is ready to fire again. And their explosiveness, their ability to get bumped and hit on their way past a Maverick defender — followed by the almost-always guaranteed two made free throws — gives them a security blanket that they should be able to reach for at any point if they need it. The Thunder have made the plays at the end of games that the Mavericks did last year, when it came down to Jason Terry or Nowitzki figuring their way to the exact spot they wanted to be on the floor, then executing their attack to perfection and then, last but not least, burying the shot. This year it is Durant getting points when he’s still not firing on all cylinders, Russell Westbrook and James Harden as creators, shot-makers and foul-talliers and a supporting cast that is, to this point, living up to the name more-so than their opponent. The Thunder do it differently, to be sure, but when they’re doing it right in the game’s crucial moments, as they have been this series, effectiveness is all that matters.
The Mavericks, as they did throughout the postseason last year, just haven’t gotten the final play to go their way. They’re in the position, they’re not hanging by a thread just to stick around, but ultimately, the plays that separate advancing from otherwise are all in Oklahoma City’s possession through two games. It could be something almost uncontrollable, like the variation in pressure from the muslce-memory movement of a couple of fingers snapping a basketball that lead to makes or misses, or it could be something easier to spot, like the Thunder’s flammable youth and desire to climb the mountain.
Of course, it’s everything: the relative chance of where the ball decides to land, the Mavericks not being able to pull the same daggers from their cloaks, and the rising of one of the league’s next great teams in the Thunder. However it all gets split up, it’s 2-0 Oklahoma City, and it’s riveting, heart-racing basketball. The remainder of this series will either force Dallas to reach even deeper into their bag of exacting skills, or prove that it’s the Thunder’s turn to reap the rewards of putting themselves in position to win how they want to.
Griffin Gotta contributes to The Hoop Doctors and is a co-managing editor of Straight Outta Vancouver on SB Nation. The story arcs and infinite weirdness of the NBA are addictions he deals with every day. Email him at griffingotta at gmail dot com.