National Basketball Association
The Thunder’s youth isn’t showing (and that’s a problem)
National Basketball Association

The Thunder’s youth isn’t showing (and that’s a problem)

Updated May. 12, 2024 12:09 p.m. ET

The primary question about the Oklahoma City Thunder going into the playoffs was whether or not they could live down their youthfulness. Considering how the last two games of their second-round series with the Dallas Mavericks have gone, they may want to live up to it.

For the second consecutive game, the Mavericks — the NBA's eighth-oldest team at the start of the season — essentially outworked the Thunder, the league's second-youngest team making its first postseason appearance in four years. The result: a second consecutive win, 105-101, for a 2-1 lead in their best-of-seven series.

Experience was supposed to be the Mavs' advantage, but effort and energy have proved to be the difference. Name a hustle statistic and the Mavs owned it. Rebounds? A 48-41 advantage. Second-chance points: 16-9, thanks to a 15-6 edge in offensive rebounds. Fastbreak points: 11-10. Points in the paint: 52-40.

"We're going against a young team," said Mavs guard Kyrie Irving. "We know they're going to compete at both ends. We just want to continue to do what gets us these Ws and it starts at the defensive end."


And, for the last two games, has ended with the Mavs roaring past their younger opponents for transition buckets. The big momentum swing in Game 3 came in the third quarter, when Dallas flipped a 10-point deficit into an 82-78 lead going into the final period by holding the Thunder scoreless for nearly 4 1/2 minutes. Nearly every OKC miss or turnover resulted in a backcourt pass for a drive to the rim and either a dunk or a kick-out dish for a corner 3.

The coup de grâce may have been a possession midway through the period when the Mavericks missed three consecutive three-pointers and ran down all three rebounds before Luka Doncic backed his way into the paint and scored on his patented fading turnaround jumper, two of their seven second-chance points in the quarter.

Thunder coach Mark Daigneault, third-youngest in the league and recently named coach of the year, tried to defy his age by going to an old trick in the fourth quarter: intentionally fouling a poor free-throw shooter to stall an opponent's offense. With OKC trailing 94-90, Mavs center Dereck Lively was the target on consecutive possessions and made only one of four truly free throws. But the strategy also gave the Mavs time to set their defense and Oklahoma City turned the ball over after Lively's two trips to the line, the strategy actually expanding the Dallas lead by one before coach Jason Kidd subbed out Lively for Tim Hardaway Jr..

But that left 6'7" PJ Washington Jr. as the Mavs' biggest player vs. OKC's 7'1" Chet Holmgren. After seeing the Thunder grab three offensive rebounds and Holmgren score on a layup to cut the lead to three, Kidd reinserted Lively — and Daigneault resumed intentionally fouling him. This time, though, Lively buried all four free throws, finally persuading OKC to abandon the strategy.

While Irving out-dueled his Thunder point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to close out the win, the Mavericks proved once again to be far more lethal when Irving and Doncic share the ball with their teammates. Doncic, clearly hobbled by a sprained knee and a sore ankle, almost has no choice. After he front-rimmed consecutive eight-foot floaters midway through the first quarter, Kidd subbed him out and Doncic did not appear happy about it.

Doncic led the league with a usage rate of 36 percent, but on Saturday it was less than 25 percent with PJ Washington Jr., Irving and Tim Hardaway Jr. all at 20-plus. That left Doncic energy to exploit his size advantage over Lou Dort on the boards, grabbing a game-high 15 rebounds.

"When we play as a team, we're tough to beat," said Irving. "That's how you want to go into the locker room. Everyone feeling good, touching the basketball, doing the right thing."

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, "Rebound," on NBA forward Brian Grant's battle with young onset Parkinson's, and "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds." He also has a daily podcast, "On The Ball with Ric Bucher." Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.


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