DALLAS -- With his Dallas Mavericks down 2-1 in the series, with a minus-66 point differential, Rick Carlisle is pulling out all the stops. He's called out the Oklahoma City Thunder for their "physical" play, and most specifically -- and surprisingly -- named Kevin Durant as a primary instigator.
"There were four what I would categorize as non-basketball physical escalations that were initiated by them, including one intentional, unprovoked elbow at the free-throw line which I didn't understand," Carlisle said Friday. "And I've never seen a guy like Kevin Durant ever do that to a player. Then ultimately, that led to two more escalations between the teams, the fact that that was missed. I'm concerned about that. There's no place for that in our game."
In the third quarter of Game 3, Durant appeared to hit Salah Mejri with an elbow to the chest, which knocked the Tunisian 7-footer to the floor. There was no call on the play, but the NBA awarded Durant a technical foul a day later, dubbing it a "physical taunt." Durant's response on Saturday following shootaround?
"Surprised," he said. "I was just playing the game, man. It's a physical game. Both teams trying to win, trying to advance. It's a part of playoff basketball."
Here's how Durant described the play:
"I was trying to box out and get a rebound. And some stuff happened," he said. "That's a part of the game. I'm not trying to hurt anybody; that's not my game. I go out and play basketball. They're not trying to hurt me or my team. Some stuff happens; that's part of the game."
Some stuff happened. Yeah, we can all read between those lines. But Carlisle naming Durant specifically was a bit unusual, though Durant said he wasn't surprised by that.
"That's what he's supposed to do," he said. "Come after the leader."
Carlisle's tactics seem to be pretty easy to decipher, with an understanding that his overmatched and shorthanded team can't compete with the deeper, more talented, more athletic Thunder. The Mavs' game plan in Game 2, a one-point win, was to slow the game down and try to mentally outwit the Thunder. It started with Charlie Villanueva interrupting Russell Westbrook 's pregame dance routine and carried on with Mavs defenders picking Durant up full court and trying to tempt him into a one-on-one duel with defenders. It worked, too, with Durant having a career-worst 7-of-33 shooting night.
The Thunder are still a young team -- they have the third-youngest starting five in the playoffs -- and though their core has been through the postseason furnace before, there's an assumption they can be manipulated mentally. Composure has been a focus of Thunder coach Billy Donovan all season long, preaching especially to his two stars to keep their heads. That played out in the fact the Thunder trimmed their team technical fouls by 16 this season, with Westbrook going from a league-leading 17 last season to just seven. This is the first season since 2010-11 that the Thunder didn't have a player finish in the top 10 in technicals.
In Game 3, when Steven Adams and Raymond Felton picked up double technicals in the third quarter, it was Westbrook, of all people, who huddled the five Thunder players on the floor, pointing to his head and talking about keeping their cool. Seeing Westbrook do that was like seeing a dog pick up a newspaper and read it out loud.
The Mavs understand what they're up against. Carlisle hasn't been shy in admitting the Thunder have more talent. Following Game 3's blowout, the primary adjustment Carlisle saw necessary was the Mavs needed to play with more "grit," a word he repeated almost 10 times. What "grit" really means is a little unclear, but it seems to suggest the Mavs need to deploy more of their veteran savvy, to work to get under the skin of Oklahoma City's stars and hope that knocks them far enough off their game.
On Saturday after shootaround, the Thunder didn't seemed fazed by Carlisle calling them out. Durant didn't bite on any questions. Donovan took the high road, resisting the temptation to fire back at Carlisle or the Mavs. Adams, an all-world irritant and instigator, brushed all of it aside. They all stayed on message, probably because they understand what Carlisle and the Mavs are trying to do. They said all the right things and didn't take any bait. But how they respond with their play in Game 4 will speak a lot louder than the words they said -- or didn't.