Mavs in Finals, as luck would have it

Hey there! I'm Beckley Mason, founder of HoopSpeak, a TrueHoop Network blog, and I'm filling in for Henry Abbott today. You can follow me on Twitter here!

A “gentleman’s sweep.” That's what they call it these days when one team knocks off another in five.

But I’m not sure the term applies in the recently deceased Western Conference finals. The Mavericks could have played just about as well, and been a bit less lucky, and found themselves down 3-2 and heading back to Oklahoma City for a must-win Game 6.

Consider the following:

  • For the series, the Thunder spent eight more minutes in the lead than the Mavs did.

  • The Mavericks won one game because Dirk Nowitzki had the game of his career.

  • Dallas won another due to the fastest, most dramatic collapse in the last decade.

That first point may mean less when we consider that the Mavericks won handily on point differential, but it speaks to how much of the series was spent with Oklahoma City in the lead. So why couldn’t they win more games?

Let’s start with Dirk’s transcendent Game 1. While not spectacularly unlikely, Dirk’s incredible 12-15 shooting performance was still highly improbable.

After Game 1, I wrote that, unlike most "hot" shooters -- who cool themselves off quickly with heat checks -- Dirk didn't take a single bad shot. All his attempts came from below the free throw line extended, and though five different defenders took turns trying to slow him, they all used essentially the same technique: let him catch in his comfort zone, then try to contest the fadeaway. I surmised that under these conditions, Dirk’s performance was less than fluky and could possibly be repeated in the very same series.

Sandy Weil of Stats, Inc. authored a highly respected Hot Hand study, and was less sold that Dirk’s performance was replicable. Weil told me a shooter of Dirk’s career and season averages could be expected to make 12 out of 15 shots or better about 1.8 percent of the time, or about once or twice per season.

But Weil also allowed that the Thunder’s defense, coming off of a Game 7 and without much time to game plan for Nowitzki, could create more favorable conditions for Dirk’s hot night.

You ask if he can stay patient, not force shots, etc. to increase the chances of having such a night.

The answer is unequivocal: absolutely.

Remember that his shots in that game have at least these things in common:

  • all came against a team playing on the road, two nights after a seventh game

  • most came against the same defender

  • most came from the same spot

Suppose that the tired opponents were good for just two percentage points better shooting, and that he matches up well against Serge Ibaka (another two percentage points) and that his favorite spot is good for another two percentage points. [I'm not saying that those are the correct factors for this adjustment; these are strictly for example's sake.]

What difference does that make? How often will a 56 percent shooter shoot 12-for-15 or better?

In about five percent of his games: about four times per season and about five or six times in 114 career playoff games. This is then a once-a-month kind of performance PROVIDED THAT one can replicate game features (i.e., tired opponent, same defender, opponent doesn’t make any adjustments to deny him his favorite spot).

So even under these perfect conditions, Dirk’s shooting would still probably be highly unlikely -- especially when we consider that Dirk’s 24-24 free throw night was both record-setting for most consecutive made free throws in a playoff game and that 24 free throw attempts is itself three more than Nowitzki had ever hoisted in his 12-year career.

Of course, the Thunder did make adjustments to how they denied Dirk, and how much time Collison spent on the floor. Over the five games, the Thunder did a better job of keeping Dirk off the line and figured out how to hold him under his season average of 51 percent shooting for the series, even after he shot 80 percent in Game 1.

Even with Dirk’s supernova, it’s easy to pin the Thunder’s demise on their lack of experience, especially because the Mavericks dominated down the stretch of three of their wins. But experienced teams give up leads in the fourth too -- just ask the Celtics.

Read a detailed recap of how the Thunder fell apart in Game 4, when they carried a 15-point lead with just under five minutes left in the game. What’s so remarkable is that not only did almost everything go wrong for the Thunder, things went perfectly wrong.

Everyone made bad decisions, sure, but if Oklahoma City got just one offensive rebound it almost certainly would have won. The Thunder had been collecting 47.5 percent of their misses before the last five minutes of the game, but recovered just one of their last eight misses.

Or what if Dirk had clanked just one of his improbable buckets in that stretch?

Then consider that the turning point of the overtime is a double-clutch 3-pointer by Jason Kidd on which he blatantly traveled.

As we know, the Thunder’s collapse was historic: 5,016 times a team had carried a 15-point plus lead into the final five minutes; Oklahoma City was the first to lose. Do we really attribute that incredible statistic to age? It’s impossible to argue that poor decision making, perhaps attributable to youth, didn’t play a huge role, but certainly it was also a bit lucky.

Lets talk about those bad decisions.

I don’t think it boils down to inexperience (both of Scott Brooks and his players) in and of itself. After all, the Thunder had one of the league’s top records in close games throughout the regular season.

What’s more important is that the Thunder, as a team, are still inchoate. Until the playoffs, who knew for sure that James Harden was a bearded blend of Brandon Roy and Manu Ginobili? Or that Serge Ibaka was in fact a relatively poor fit to guard the best power forwards in the league? Or that Kendrick Perkins would play just like the scowling old center at the Y who fouls too hard, has hands of stone and knees of stucco?

Quick: Aside from being young and talented, what is the essential trait of the Thunder?

The Mavs have laser-beam-bouncing-off-of-mirrors ball movement, the Bulls have that growling defense, but I can’t quite put my finger on the Thunder’s, and part of that is the fault of Scott Brooks and his coaching staff. But it’s also somewhat excusable because Thunder players are developing at such a rate that it’s a difficult task to fully implement a system that perfectly accounts for each player’s developing abilities.

In this series we witnessed a few smoldering stretches of Harden playing on the ball, operating the pick-and-roll, with Westbrook and Durant acting as finishers on the weakside. There were times when it seemed the Mavericks would never find an open 3. But these were only glimpses of a team whose tectonic plates are still drifting into position.

The Thunder have yet to establish a consistent identity, which is as much a consequence of the roster shake-ups and the shifting nature of player identities as it is of pure youth or inexperience.

But even with the bad decisions, the lack of playoff experience, and the magical Maverick finishes, it still took two fluky events to knock out the Thunder.

My bet is that by this time next year, we’ll be able to immediately list the defining qualities of the Thunder. One of them may well be Western Conference champions.