Tuesday, May 21, 2024 May 21, 2024
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What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Mavs-Thunder, Game 1

Outgunned and outclassed.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder trampled Dallas in Game 1. Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder trampled Dallas in Game 1. Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The playoffs are complicated. Each series is its own story, and each game is its own chapter encompassing a dozen moments and plot points. But the playoffs can also be simple. Each of those moments, those plot points, falls into one of two buckets: the things we observe and the emotions they inspire within us. That’s what we’re here to talk about.

What We Saw

We’re off to a familiar start, as the Mavericks have now lost the opening game in all five playoff series under Jason Kidd. But the script is different this time. 

The Mavericks are no longer the younger, faster, bouncier team. In this game, Oklahoma City was. Dallas started sluggishly, committing six turnovers in the first quarter and 15 overall. Controlling the ball against an athletic Thunder team, which punishes every mistake with fast breaks and layups, is crucial to controlling this series. On top of that, the Thunder were far more aggressive, with Lu Dort and his young teammates hustling to secure nearly every 50-50 ball. OKC won the rebounding battle, an area where the bigger Mavericks were expected to have an advantage. This forced the Mavericks into playing catch-up with the Thunder before the first quarter was out. It wasn’t helped by the referees’ unusual criteria in the second, which differed significantly from anything we’ve seen in the playoffs so far.

There were some positives. Led by Daniel Gafford’s five blocks, the Mavs protected the paint well again, holding OKC to 18 of 42 or 43 percent shooting there. That only goes so far when they got beat at their own game. Both teams prioritize collapsing in the paint over allowing three-point looks, but the Thunder were much more effective with that strategy. Their offensive concepts, spacing, and shooting were simply better than the Mavericks’. The game was effectively over once they spread the floor and their shooters heated up in the second half, making 11 of 19 from beyond the arc. 

On the other end, the Mavericks shot just 34 percent from three. Their attempts to exploit the smaller Thunder backline by force-feeding Gafford and Dereck Lively II inside were not effective enough to force Mark Daigneault to adjust. The Mavericks’ big men combo shot 6 of 15 in the paint and totaled three turnovers. Their attacks were too static, too predictable, too slow.

Tactics aside, playoff matchups are mostly decided by star players, and last night the Thunder duo of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams outplayed Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving. Dončić’s shooting struggles continue; he doesn’t look anything like the player who dominated past playoffs and bent every defensive scheme to his will. How much of this is due to the state of his knee, which limits his explosiveness and mobility, and how much is simply a lack of confidence in his shot? Probably nobody but Dončić knows. What we do know, and what this opening game reaffirmed, is that the Thunder are too good for the Mavericks to keep pace if Dončić can’t turn it around and play at least close to the level of his past playoff résumé. —Iztok Franko

What It Felt Like

When previewing this series Tuesday morning, Jake Kemp likened this Mavericks team to Frankenstein’s monster, not for its ugliness but its randomness. Here is a roster mishmashed from Nico Harrison’s philosophy and Donnie Nelson’s, led by a deliberate floor general (Dončić) and a turbo-charged one (Irving), complemented by castoffs (Derrick Jones Jr.) and reclamation projects (Dante Exum) and deadline darlings (Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington), and, sure, the occasional lottery pick (Lively). It’s working. Dallas ranks sixth in both offense and defense since the NBA trade deadline. And it should continue to work, given the youth of every core player aside from Irving and the the sidelined Maxi Kleber. One bludgeoning defeat doesn’t flatten this group’s upward trajectory. 

But it is hard to ignore the seams when the Mavericks are juxtaposed against the master-planned Thunder and all that talent oozing from their locker room. We are accustomed to the idea of Oklahoma City as the horde of white walkers descending on the NBA’s northern wall: inevitable yet slow-moving, on schedule yet still not arrived. Until this season, that is, when a healthy Chet Holmgren joined an existing passel of young blue chippers, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander ascended to an MVP frontrunner, and Oklahoma City claimed the West’s top seed, then defended it with a sweep of New Orleans in the first round. Tuesday was the latest sign that the Thunder may be far more than next, thumping and pounding on the gates with too much force to turn back.

Because despite what the final score says, the Mavericks were not lifeless in this game. All the contours of what they wanted to do were on display, from Dončić’s step back to Irving’s handles to Gafford and Jones’ raw horsepower to Washington and Josh Green’s plugging away from the corners. Dallas just could not fill any of them in enough to create an advantage against a Thunder team playing so rich and full, nailing shots and dictating tempo and cramming Dallas’ ball handlers into spaces too tight for comfort. It scanned like a meticulously designed team outclassing a hastily assembled one. 

The Thunder will not shoot this well from three each night, but it is far less guaranteed that Dallas will win the rebounding or turnover battles, let alone both. Dončić and Irving must play better and almost certainly will. But the question isn’t how much; it’s how much that moves the needle. It’s damn tough for two men to take down an army. —Mike Piellucci


Iztok Franko

Iztok Franko

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Iztok Franko covers the Mavericks for StrongSide. He is an analyst that uncovers stories hidden in NBA data and basketball…
Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…