The crowd at American Airlines Arena got their money's worth last light. They were privileged to witness two transcendent scoring displays, a handful of "whoah" moments from the Dallas bench, and a win for the home team. The Mavs threw the first punch in this Western Conference Finals with their 121-112 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder last night, riding a historically staggering performance from Dirk Nowitzki. For the big German, this was a night where a glance at the basic stat line: 48 pts., 6 boards, 4 dimes, and 4 blocks, doesn't even begin to describe what actually transpired on the floor. I can't actually decide which of these two nuggets is more impressive:
1. Dirk broke an NBA record by going a perfect 24-of-24 from the line, the most consecutive free throws ever in a single game, playoff or regular season.
2. He also went 12/15 from the field. That's a ridiculous 80% FG if you're scoring at home.
Dirk basically did whatsoever he chose last night while racking up those heady numbers. He got to the hoop, he posted up, and he put on a clinic with that patented fall-away on the right block. Scott Brooks threw half his roster at Nowitzki defensively (not an exaggeration), only to make an unpleasant discovery: every single player given that unenviable task came off the floor in bad foul trouble, while having failed to even remotely stem the tide of buckets Dirk was raining down on OKC. Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison did as well as could be expected, playing in Dirk's grill and contesting every shot, and still had to grab some pine midway through the third quarter when they each picked up their 4th fouls. And they were the best of the Thunder's options. Every one else looked completely useless.
As in game 4 of the Mavs/Lakers series, Dirk got plenty of help from a stellar Dallas bench. Jason Terry shot 50% from the floor, including 4 of 8 treys en route to 24 points, and J.J. Barea picked up exactly where he left off in that game. The Mavs' tiny spark plug dropped 21 points, including a stretch of 12 straight, on a helpless Thunder D in just 16 minutes of playing time, barreling past defenders and tacking on a few key three-point bombs for good measure. (The stretch in the fourth quarter where Nate Robinson was checking him, or, more accurately, trying and failing to do so, was a hilarious few minutes of tiny-dude-on-tiny-dude violence.)
Lost in all the fervor over the Mavs in general and Dirk's monster game specifically was Kevin Durant's own Herculean performance of 40 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 blocks. KD was solely responsible for keeping this one close down the stretch, and did a little bit of everything, including leading a few choice fast breaks and handling the ball in transition. Unfortunately, he got little help from anyone else. Russell Westbrook was a discombobulated mess, a mere shell of the player who rack up a triple double in game 7 against Memphis. Westbrook played atrociously disjointed basketball for the majority of the night, and his 20 point total belies the inefficiency he displayed in acquiring them (3/15 from the floor). He failed to handle well or get teammates decent looks, and was especially futile in pick-n-roll situations. Other than Durant, the Thunder's lone bright spot was Serge Ibaka, who feasted on the Mavs inside to the tune of 17 points.
This may sound odd, but I suspect the Thunder are actually feeling pretty good about this series after last night. It's highly unlikely that Russell Westbrook will submit another abysmal outing again, and for all the Mavs' firepower, the margin at the buzzer was only 9 points. Scott Brooks needs to accept that Dirk is essentially unguardable, and orient his defensive schemes to slowing everyone else down, and they'll cetainly need some better offensive production (I'm looking at you, James Harden.) Nonetheless, what could have been a massacre, and often felt like one, turned out to be more or less a to-the-wire affair after the Thunder climbed back from a 17-point deficit.
The fact that OKC kept this one so close, and kept digging in for a fight when things seemed insurmountable, means we're in for an epic series. Moreover, though they obviously don't guard each other normally, I also suspect we could be in for a rare treat along the lines of the great 'Nique/Bird playoff dueling shootouts from Dirk and Durant. You probably don't have a seatbelt on your couch or your favorite bar stool, but you might consider having one installed before game 2 tips on Thursday. You may well need it.