Game One of the Western Conference Finals at American Airlines Center was a duel to remember.
Two superstars, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant, shot the lights out, combining for 88 points. Nowitzki came out on top, and Thunder head coach Scott Brooks was left scratching his head trying to figure out how to guard the sharpshooting big man.
Nowitzki scored 48 points and shot an outstanding 12-of-15 from the field. He tied a playoff record for most consecutive free throws in a quarter by shooting 13-for-13 in the third quarter, and shot an overall 24-for-24 from the line, also a record.
But the Thunder came right back in Game Two. In some ways, the game was more memorable than Game One because of the nature of the comeback.
Rather unexpectedly, the Thunder got such a great collective effort from the bench, that Brooks benched starters Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, and Thabo Sefolosha.
The strategy paid off, as James Harden went on a scoring barrage, and the Thunder took Game Two to even the series.
To some insiders, the fourth quarter benching of Westbrook might signal in-house problems for the Thunder. In fact, it might be the other way around. Rick Carlisle's squad has to be wondering how they can regain momentum after having so many problems with the Oklahoma City's reserves.
Scott Brooks may have found his key to win the series: bench play. While Ibaka defended Nowitzki well, it didn't seem to matter as the Mavericks' power forward was still able to score at will in Game One.
But when Brooks put Nick Collison in the game to defend Nowitzki, it was a different story. Collison conceded his share of shots to Nowitzki, but the former Kansas star also had a key steal and an important block against Nowitzki late in the fourth quarter. Such hard-nosed defending might be the reason Oklahoma City wins the series.
Carlisle must now deal with a confident Thunder bench, and players like Westbrook who are eager to prove they deserved to be on the floor in crunch time.
It also doesn't help matters that Oklahoma City Arena has perhaps the most boisterous fans in sports. The arena will be loud from the start, and they will make sure to throw their support to Westbrook.
The Thunder seem to have their hands full with Nowitzki, but the other Maverick players are capable of chipping in when their scoring leader doesn't have the ball.
The Mavericks will need a better effort from Jason Terry, who scored only eight points in Game Two. Terry is the catalyst for the Mavericks. While much of the attention centers on Nowitzki, and the playmaking skills of veteran guard Jason Kidd, Terry is capable of getting very hot, and that often spells doom for opponents.
During the regular season, when Terry has scored 20 or more points, Dallas has a 17-3 record. Of the three Mavericks' playoff losses, two came when Terry was held under 14 points.
Dallas will also need another big game from speedy point guard J.J. Barea. In Game Two, Barea took only eight shots, and was far less effective than he was in Game One, when he scored 21 points on eight-of-12 shooting.
A big question mark is Peja Stojakovic. The veteran shooter regained his scoring touch in the playoffs, but can he continue to hit three pointers in the Western Conference Finals? So far, he has shot only 29 percent from beyond the arc against the Thunder.
The Mavericks need a split in the two-game swing in Oklahoma, and taking some momentum away from the Thunder's impressive bench play in Game Two might be the key for the series.
PREDICTION: Oklahoma City goes back to Westbrook, and the Thunder point guard plays with more poise than he did in the first two games of the series. Nowitzki may struggle a bit, but he will get hot as he usually does, and a combination of Collison and Ibaka defending him won't slow down the Dallas star much. Durant has a big game, as the Thunder give him plenty of touches in the second half. Dallas, however, finds a way to squeeze out a victory.
SCORE PREDICTION: Dallas 109, Oklahoma City 107.