Serge Ibaka stood right up to Dirk Nowitzki, stretching his 7-foot-4 wingspan to make the view of the basket as tough as possible.
And it hardly mattered.
Wherever he went, whoever he was up against, Nowitzki either nailed a shot or made his way to the foul line. He hit 10 of his first 11 shots from the field and an NBA playoff-record 24 straight free throws on the way to 48 points, leading the Dallas Mavericks to a 121-112 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday night.
”I thought Dirk was pretty good tonight,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, laughing. ”I thought we defended him as close as we can – obviously, too close.”
Nowitzki finished 12 of 15 from the field and a perfect 24 of 24 at the line. It was the most points by anyone this postseason and two shy of his most ever in a playoff game. He credited some late-night shooting sessions he put in during Dallas’ nine-day wait for this series, and the confidence boost of hitting his first few shots.
”I was really looking to shoot early and was able to get my rhythm after the first couple of shots,” said Nowitzki, who had six rebounds, four assists and four blocks. ”I kept attacking and my teammates kept feeding me and feeding me and I was able to take advantage over some smaller players.”
Jason Terry scored 24 points and J.J. Barea added 21 as the Mavericks picked up where they left off in a sweep of the Lakers nine days before. They broke open a tight game with a 13-0 run late in the second quarter and never trailed again, stretching their franchise-record postseason winning streak to seven games.
Game 2 is Thursday night in Dallas, where the Mavs are 6-0 this postseason.
The Thunder – fresh off a seven-game series against Memphis that included a total of four overtimes – led by nine points early in the second quarter, then went 6:28 between baskets. They missed 10 shots during that drought and were down by 11 when it ended. They eventually trailed by 16 before clawing within five points with 3:42 left, and six with 48.5 seconds to play.
”I thought we had a chance,” Brooks said.
Six Thunder players had the misfortune of trying to guard Nowitzki, and the big German either shot over them or put them in foul trouble. He made 13 free throws in the third quarter alone.
On one of those plays when Ibaka held up his long arms, Nowitzki went to his one-legged, step-back jumper and saw the ball go off the rim, against the backboard, off the rim again and then drop through the net. He also got to the line twice by way of defensive three-second calls.
”We can’t get discouraged,” said Oklahoma City star Kevin Durant, who finished with 40 points but was whistled for two fouls against Nowitzki in a 5-second span during the third quarter. ”He’s going to make shots. He’s going to make off-balanced shots with a hand in his face.”
Nowitzki just wouldn’t be denied.
On the series when he missed for the first time, a teammate got the ball back to him, and he found Tyson Chandler for a layup. On the few times a second defender ran at him, he passed to the teammate left open; that’s what set up Jason Kidd for his only basket, a 3-pointer. And in the final minute, Nowitzki passed to Terry in the corner for a 3-pointer that sealed the victory.
”The main thing is, we found a way to win,” Nowitzki said. ”That’s what it’s all about.”
Durant followed his 39 points in Game 7 of the previous round with the 40, one shy of his most ever in a playoff game. While Nowitzki dominated, Durant’s scoring binge merely helped his team stay close.
Russell Westbrook went from a triple-double in his last game to 20 points, three assists and three rebounds. He missed 12 of his 15 shots, including 10 of his first 11. Despite his poor aim, he had taken more shots than Durant at one point late in the third quarter, fueling the critics who say he’s too much of a scorer and not enough of a distributor.
”He was attacking the basket,” Brooks said. ”That’s what we want Russell to do.”
The Thunder’s bigger problem was Nowitzki.
Brooks came into this series unsure how to approach Nowitzki because his longtime first choice to cover him, Jeff Green, was traded in February.
Ibaka started against Nowitzki, got two quick fouls, and was replaced by Nick Collison. Kendrick Perkins, Durant, Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden all took turns with little success.
”He was hot,” Ibaka said. ”It’s tough. You can’t get frustrated. I’ll watch the film and we’ll come back the next game.”
Oklahoma City was careful to avoid any fine-worthy comments about the officiating, but players made it clear they didn’t like all the calls Nowitzki got. Then again, Nowitzki noted that the Thunder got to the line more than Dallas did. Durant was 18 of 19 on free throws and Westbrook was 14 of 18.
”After playing a physical series with Memphis, I think we were a little too physical with him,” Durant said. ”We have to make adjustments, be smarter. It’s a learning experience, just feeling it out and seeing how we’re going to play.”
The good news for Brooks is that his youngsters kept scrapping all the way to the end.
Down by double digits on the road to a well-rested, veteran team, they could have considered this game a lost cause and saved energy for the next game. Perhaps they remembered Dallas’ history of blowing big, late leads. Earlier this postseason, the Mavericks coughed up a 23-point lead over the final 14 minutes against Portland.
The Thunder ended up scoring more than anyone had against Dallas this postseason – by 15 points.
”They’re going to continue to play that way,” Terry said. ”For us it was very key to get this one. Now the next one is very big.”
Shawn Marion scored 11 points, despite being floored by an inadvertent elbow from Perkins to his nose. The trainer cleaned up Marion quickly and, with a plug of gauze up his right nostril, he was part of 13-0 run that followed. He even scored the go-ahead basket on a dunk.
Kidd had 11 assists and three steals.
After tying a playoff record with 20 3-pointers in its last game, Dallas missed its first six tries from behind the arc. The Mavericks finished 9 of 23 on 3-pointers. Terry was 4 of 8 after making 9 of 10 in the close-out game against the Lakers.
NOTES: The playoff record for consecutive free throws without a miss was 21 by Boston’s Paul Pierce against Indiana in April 2003. … The Mavs are 3-0 in Game 1s so far; they’re 2-0 in Game 2s. … Game 1 winners have won 78.6 percent of all best-of-7 series in NBA history. … Oklahoma City also lost its opener in the last round. … Teams going at least nine days between rounds are now 10-9 in Game 1 of the next series.