Playoffs

Thunder remind everyone why they’re the No. 1 seed in convincing win over Mavs

Thunder remind everyone why they're the No. 1 seed in convincing win over Mavs

OKLAHOMA CITY — Each section of the Paycom Center draped in alternating blue and white giveaway T-shirts, an unrelenting crowd reached a fever pitch midway through Tuesday night’s third quarter. The top-seeded Thunder erupted in the second half of their second-round clash with the Mavericks, splashing a flurry of 3-pointers from all around the white-painted arc en route to a 117-95 Game 1 victory over Dallas.

The pattern should be expected at this point. OKC paced the entire NBA in outside shooting (38.9%) throughout the regular season, a key part of the Thunder’s climb atop the Western Conference standings — despite Oklahoma City rostering the youngest group to ever claim the first seed in NBA history.

Rivals have been waiting for OKC’s inexperience to rear its ugly head at some point during these playoffs. And there was Dallas’ star-studded backcourt of Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving leading a 12-4 run to open the second half, trimming the host’s edge to a single digit. But the Thunder, these pesky Thunder, held firm. The ball pinged around the perimeter, whether after drive-and-kicks or off dizzying ball movement. OKC poured in six 3-pointers in the third after calling a timeout to quell Dallas’ quick burst. The Thunder would finish 16-of-35 from deep, thanks to a franchise playoff-record 29 assists.

“It’s a muscle we’ve built at this point,” Thunder head coach Mark Daigneualt said. “We’ve had to endure a lot of those situations during the course of the season. I think a lot of it comes from respect for the opponent. We know this is a heavyweight matchup.”

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma City Thunder shoots the ball against Derrick Jones Jr. of the Dallas Mavericks during the third quarter in Game 1 of their Western Conference second-round series at Paycom Center on May 7, 2024, in Oklahoma City. (Photo by Joshua Gateley/Getty Images)

Oklahoma City just kept landing punches. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander drilled a pair of step-backs from distance, part of his game-high 29 points, in the middle of that third-quarter stretch. Isaiah Joe, just 24 and once waived by Philadelphia, delivered when called upon with two triples of his own. Rookie guard Cason Wallace, only 20, was money from the corners. Second-year guard Jalen Williams struggled mightily, then compiled 10 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter — the bulk during a critical stretch with Gilgeous-Alexander resting on the bench.

“I just thought our rhythm in the second half was really good,” Daigneault said. “Really intelligent attacks, a good blend of aggression, really taking what the defense gave us.”

The Mavericks simply couldn’t keep pace. A faster tempo benefited Dallas against the Los Angeles Clippers in their first-round matchup, allowing Irving and Dončić to slither around screens and through crevices in the Clippers’ defense to score or rocket passes to waiting shooters.

Dončić appeared a step slow, almost hobbled, needing a rest on the stanchion below the basket when a timeout was called not even six full minutes into the first quarter. He’s been battling a knee injury since crashing into Los Angeles swingman Terance Mann and was a game-time decision entering the Mavericks’ fourth outing against the Clippers. Even with three days off following Dallas’ series-clinching win on Friday, Dončić did not have the requisite base to lurch into his own step-backs that Gilgeous-Alexander managed with ease. When Dončić did hit his first and only triple of the game at his usual top-of-the-key office, he raised his palms in obvious relief. Dončić would finish just 1-of-8 from beyond the arc, scoring 19 points on 6-of-19 shooting from the field.

“Who cares? We lost,” Dončić said. “We just gotta move on to the next one. I gotta be better. We gotta be better. We’re known for Game 1 struggling.” Dallas is now 0-5 in Game 1s under head coach Jason Kidd, fresh off a new contract extension. “But we gotta focus,” Dončić continued. “They’re a great team, great defensive team, great offensive team, so it’s not gonna be easy at all.”

Perhaps it was his lack of a true threat to spring into any shot off the dribble that aided OKC’s tactical defense. But the Thunder were nothing short of impressive, chasing Dončić over screens and forcing him below the arc. Such a savant of the pick-and-roll, where the additions of rookie center Dereck Lively and trade deadline acquisition Daniel Gafford have added a necessary aerial dimension to Dončić’s preferred action, he didn’t connect on a single lob pass Tuesday. His first attempt at an alley-oop was lofted so high above Chet Holmgren’s interminable arms, it was too high and too far for Lively to finish and the ball caromed off the iron.

Maybe it was Holmgren’s incredible reach, his bony hands blinding Dončić’s vision as OKC’s standout rookie center hedged out to curtail any driving lanes. “I’m just trying to do whatever I can to make it as hard as possible,” Holmgren said. “It sounds like I’m trying to dumb it down for you, but I’m really not. That’s all it is. Just be as active as I can.”

Maybe it was the Thunder’s swarming rotations, where Williams would stand tall against Gafford or Josh Giddey was already in the paint ready to tag any roller, idling like a safety hawking the middle of a football field. There always seemed to be some Thunder player there to poke the ball free whenever a Dallas big foolishly brought it below his waist. Oklahoma City did have eight full days at its disposal to hone every element of its defensive front. “I thought our week of prep won us tonight,” Daigneault said, “but now we gotta win the next gap.”

The Thunder also combatted their opponents’ physical advantage during one stretch by pairing Holmgren with Jaylin Williams, the big man out of Arkansas. “We like that look against this team in certain situations. We wanted to take a look at everything tonight,” Daigneault said. “We went small there late. We played different lineups.”

Whatever combination OKC went to, the defense seemed to work. Dallas only scored five points on 13 possessions finished by a roll man, two of those points coming on a lob from Derrick Jones Jr. to Gafford — not from Dončić or Irving — and the others coming from Gafford’s trips to the foul line.

The Mavericks will need Tim Hardaway Jr., once a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, to find his form from the outside. He missed all four of his 3-point attempts while Maxi Kleber, arguably Dallas’ most impactful floor spacer, was sidelined with a shoulder injury. Josh Green came off the bench to hit his first two triples, but then was just 1-of-6 for the remainder of the game. Each time Dončić found Green open on the weak side, and his shot clanked off iron, you could see the Slovenian superstar’s optimism waning. Kidd pulled the Mavericks’ starters down 22 with 5:14 to play.

“When you have a great rim protector in Chet, he’s going to make things difficult,” Irving said. “We had a lot of opportunities where we had Chet away from the basket and we hit our bigs in the pocket, and we just weren’t as successful as we needed to be.”

If the Mavs cannot muster greater outcomes Thursday, these Thunder are ready to strike for a second time and keep residing in the upper echelon of the West for years to come.

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