OKLAHOMA CITY -- This flawed Dallas Mavericks team that had to fight just to finish over .500 and make the playoffs presents plenty of legitimate targets for critics.
Just don’t put lack of pride on that list. Don’t even try to question this team’s toughness.
If nothing else, the Mavs have proven they can take a punch and get back up. Their response to the Game 1 haymaker thrown by the Oklahoma City Thunder -- a stunning, series-evening 85-84 win Monday night --– adds to the pile of evidence of the Mavs’ remarkable resiliency.
The humiliation to start this series, a 38-point loss that was the second-most lopsided in franchise playoff history, marked the seventh time this season the Mavs were blown out by at least 20 points, which could be considered pretty strong proof that this team has some problems. But the Mavs excel at getting off the mat, going 6-1 in games immediately following a blowout.
“I think at times we’ve been soft,” point guard Deron Williams said after his gutsy 13-point, 5-assist performance. “But when we need to go on a six-game win streak to pull out the season and get in the playoffs, we’ve definitely shown toughness. We didn’t show it last game, but we bounced back. After getting embarrassed here, it’s a totally different team that comes out tonight. There is definitely a lot of pride.”
The fact that Williams, whose injuries opened him up to a lot of criticism in Brooklyn before being bought out of the final two years of his max contract, even played in Game 2 was a testament to his toughness. A sports hernia that sidelined him for eight games late in the season bothered him as much as ever in Saturday’s series opener, and Williams was listed as doubtful Monday night.
But Williams, who took an anti-inflammatory shot pregame to numb the pain as much as possible, didn’t just play. He dominated the first five minutes of the game, when his 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting matched Dallas’ point total from the entire disastrous first quarter of Game 1.
“It set a tone,” face of the franchise Dirk Nowitzki said. “It set a tone that we want to be here and we want to play through some stuff. It’s the playoffs. Nobody’s going to make excuses for you. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for you. He gutted it out for us and got us off to a good start. That’s just what we needed.”
Williams wasn’t able to finish the game; he checked out for good midway through the third quarter, when it was painful just to watch him limp up and down the floor. His status for the rest of the series likely will be decided on a game-to-game basis.
That’s also true for point guard J.J. Barea, who was the star of the Mavs’ playoff push before suffering a groin strain that he aggravated in Game 1. He didn’t play Monday night, meaning Dallas had to rely on New York Knicks castoff Raymond Felton.
Felton’s response? He more than held his own against Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook, scoring 21 points and grabbing 11 rebounds while playing 42 minutes. In doing so, Felton helped the Mavs make this trip across the Red River a success despite the debacle of an opener.
“We all knew that that wasn’t acceptable,” Felton said of Game 1. “That’s not Dallas Mavericks basketball. That was just a disgrace to the city of Dallas, to the fans of Dallas, and to ourselves and our families. It was just an embarrassment, man, on national television to get beat like that. So we were coming in here for a dogfight. Even if we didn’t come out with the win, we were going to come out and give them a fight.”
Perhaps the player who most personifies the Mavs’ fighting spirit is shooting guard Wesley Matthews, who surprised his coach and many other people by being ready to play in the season opener less than eight months after rupturing his left Achilles tendon.
This season was a struggle for Matthews, whose shooting percentages were by far the worst of his career. He had another poor shooting performance Monday night, but you won’t see many more impressive 3-of-11 outings.
“He’s a warrior,” coach Rick Carlisle said after Matthews spearheaded the defensive effort against Kevin Durant, the all-NBA scorer who bricked all but seven of his 33 shots from the floor. Durant was 3-of-13 while being defended by Matthews, who gives up at least six inches in the matchup.
“Not one individual can slow somebody like that down,” Matthews said. “He’s arguably the best scorer in the league. My team was great behind me, and he was probably missing some shots, some good looks. My offense wasn’t there, but I was going to be damned if I was going to let that lead to an L for us.”
After missing his first seven shots, Matthews managed to come up with some big buckets in the clutch for the Mavs. His driving layup with 6:30 remaining finally got Matthews on the board and stopped an 8-0 Thunder run. Matthews hit a tough turnaround the next possession to keep the Mavs within striking distance against a much more talented team that Dallas knows has had trouble closing games. And Matthews outhustled Durant for a loose ball and sprinted for a transition layup to put the Mavs up four with 14.4 seconds left.
“What he did on the defensive end showed a lot of heart, a lot of grit,” Williams said. “He pretty much sacrificed his offense for defense tonight, but then came up with two huge offensive plays in the clutch. You can’t teach that. That’s just all heart right there.”
The Mavs still had to survive a heart-stopping finish. After Felton missed a pair of free throws with 7.1 seconds left -- “Even though we got the win, I’m still sick,” he said -- Westbrook flew down the floor as only he does. He dished to Durant, whose layup was blocked by high-rising Dallas rookie Justin Anderson. Westbrook missed a putback attempt. Center Steven Adams then tipped the ball in off the glass, sending confetti streaming down from the Chesapeake Energy Arena rafters.
But hold on. A quick review showed the ball was still in Adams’ hand when the buzzer sounded. The Mavs, a 14-point underdog, had pulled off arguably the NBA’s biggest playoff upset of the past two decades.
“We let ’em know we’re here to fight,” Nowitzki said. “Obviously, with their talent and their team and their roster, they’re still the heavy favorites. But we let ’em know this is not going to be an easy walkover.”