The Oklahoma City Thunder may be up 2-0 in its first-round series with the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA playoffs, but the matchup is closer than one might think.
The series has so far featured 32 lead changes and 26 ties, yet, the end results have favored the Thunder, who have only beat the Mavericks by a combined four points in Game 1 and Game 2. Dallas led in the final minute of both games in Oklahoma City, but the combination of a seemingly lucky bounce on a Kevin Durant jumper in the final seconds of the first and some unlucky misses by Dirk Nowitzki in the final minutes of the second has forced Dallas to find its way out of a two-game crater.
Stopping Westbrook might be the key for the Mavericks to win. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Westbrook has taken more shots than Durant 28 times from the beginning of this season until now. The Thunder are 23-5 when that happens. (Reuters/Steve Sisney)
We haven't played bad basketball, said Nowitzki. We've been right there. It's been frustrating. Last year coming down the stretch, we knew we'd find a way to win, get the big stop, get the big shot, get to the line, whatever we needed to happen to get the win. But we're not going to pack it in. We're going to keep coming.
Nowitzki has still quietly been performing well, scoring 56 points in the first two games. He scored 11 of his 25 points in the final 5 minutes of Game 1, displaying the clutch shooting of a year ago. But, although he arguably carried Dallas to a title in 2011 with clutch buckets, he may not have that luxury with the Thunder in this postseason.
Durant has been just as clutch and performing just as well, having scored 51 points in the first two games, including the clutch two points that sealed Dallas's Game 1 fate at the close. Durant has struggled with his shots (34.1 percent on 15-of-44 shooting), but he does have Russell Westbrook on an individual level and versatile team defense on a collective level to bank on helping him.
Russell Westbrook is averaging 28.5 points per game so far in the playoffs on a remarkable 52.3 percent shooting. Meanwhile, the Thunder has shown physicality, highlighted by Nowitzki's heated exchange with Kendrick Perkins in Game 2, which seems to show the evolution of readiness and willingness to make the NBA Finals and win it.
They have another year under their belt and they have some of the most talented players in the world, said Jason Kidd, the Mavs' 39-year-old point guard who has played more NBA games than any other active player. This is a different team in sense of maturity and understanding the game. They're getting better and that makes them dangerous.
Game 3 between the Thunder and Mavericks will begin at 9:30 p.m. ET at American Airlines Center on TNT. A live stream can be watched here.
PREDICTION: Dallas has kept both games close and will be at home -- where they had a 23-10 record in the regular season -- for Game 3. That in it of itself should allow them to increase their chances of taking a lead and holding it in crunch time. The Mavericks take Game 3 (in what should be another close one still), 99-96.