May 25, 2024

Thunder slip into 2-1 series hole in NBA playoffs against Mavericks: What has gone wrong?

The most deadly Oklahoma City Thunder possession Saturday afternoon in Dallas might have been their briefest. It came with just over two minutes left in a three-point game, a massive swing sequence in this second-round series.

Isaiah Joe, the Thunder’s ace shooter off the bench, reached out to stab a slick steal, doubling Kyrie Irving and recovering in time to grab Irving’s pocket bounce pass with his left hand and redirect it into a behind-the-back fast break the other direction. Jalen Williams, trailing on his right, had enough of a step to make it a three-on-two transition opportunity.

But before the sequence had a chance to even materialize, Joe threw a rushed skip pass up ahead to Luguentz Dort, who didn’t anticipate it. Luka Dončić, one of the league’s sharper minds, read the mistake and pounced into the passing lane. Within three seconds, he’d turned his own steal into a gliding layup.

That’s a four-point swing, possibly five. A transition layup would’ve put the Thunder down one-point, a made 3 would’ve tied it. Instead, Dončić’s layup put the Mavericks up five. They’d protect that slight cushion to finish off a 105-101 Game 3 win two minutes later, bumping the Mavs up 2-1 in the series and putting the Thunder in their first hole during these playoffs.

Oklahoma City, while young, is one of the safest offensive teams in the NBA. Their 12.7 turnovers per game this season were seventh-fewest. Their final total on Saturday (14) was only a tick above that average. But in a narrow game, some of their unforced, uncharacteristic giveaways (similar to the Game 2 loss) stick out as particularly harmful.

Here are two more. Both come directly after a rebound against zero Mavericks pressure. Jalen Williams throws the first too far ahead and out of bounds. Aaron Wiggins throws the second into the first row.

Let’s take a look at some of the Thunder’s other large issues in their Game 3 loss, as they use the next 48 hours prepping for a high-stakes Game 4 on Monday night in Dallas.

Fifteen Mavericks offensive rebounds

Those two highlighted turnovers in the previous clip feel an extra bit detrimental because they came directly after an all-valuable defensive rebound, which has eluded the Thunder often this season and too often in Game 3. The Mavericks had 15 offensive rebounds (nine more than OKC) and 16 second-chance points (seven more).

That included a first-quarter possession in which the Mavericks grabbed three offensive rebounds in a 10-second sequence. The third was a tip putback from P.J. Washington, who’d just missed a 3 on the right wing, but the Thunder didn’t box him out, so he slipped through to the right block for two extra points. Here it is.

Washington’s bulk scoring

Check out the list of point totals for the top-five scorers in this series through three games.

1. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: 93
2. Luka Dončić: 70
3. P.J. Washington: 66
4. Jalen Williams: 54
5. Kyrie Irving: 51

That third bolded name is the unexpected outlier, changing this series because of his bulk scoring next to Dončić. Washington had 29 points in the Game 2 win and 27 in the Game 3 win. For the Mavericks, this is their dream result dating back to the February trade deadline when they acquired him. For Washington, this is a possible pivot point in his career. For the Thunder, this an understandable strategy backfiring.

Stopping the Mavericks is about containing Dončić, which they’ve done decently, and Irving, which they’ve done well. But to do so, others will be left open. Washington is one of those others. In this series, he is now 14 of 26 on 3s, most either being open or wide open.

“He’s hooping,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of Washington after Game 3. “We gotta turn that water off if we want to win this series, for sure.”

The Thunder had a 10-point third quarter lead on Saturday, but the Mavericks went on a 16-0 run that included this sequence at an emotional point of the game. Dončić pump-faked and shouldered Dort, asking for a flopping technical after. But because of the collapsing defense, including Gilgeous-Alexander, Washington was wide open in the corner for 3.

How’d the Giddey minutes go?

Not horrible. This was Giddey’s best game of the three. He clearly entered with a little bit more of a plan to attack the ocean of space Dallas is giving him. He had a layup and floater in the first quarter and a top-of-the-key 3 and decisive drive right past Daniel Gafford for a layup during an 11-0 third-quarter run. The Thunder were plus-7 at one point with Giddey on the floor.

But he finished at a minus-1 because he was on the floor for a chunk of that third quarter Dallas turnaround, as the Mavericks continued to cross-match and use his defender to clog up the Thunder’s flow. Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault pulled the plug in the third and didn’t go back to Giddey. He finished at 13 minutes after 17 and 11 the first two games, his three lowest minute totals since December.

Giddey wasn’t nearly the Thunder’s largest problem in Game 3, but as the Thunder get more desperate and elimination draws nearer, more urgent adjustments are expected, leaving Giddey’s playing time even more vulnerable in a series he doesn’t seem to fit.

Hacking strategy fails

Down five and needing to extend the game in the middle of the fourth, Daigneault went to the hack strategy, intentionally fouling rookie center Dereck Lively II four separate times.

It helped initially. Lively, a 50-percent free-throw shooter who hadn’t attempted one in the first two games of the series, went 1 for 4 after the first two fouls. The Thunder inched back and Mavericks coach Jason Kidd temporarily pulled him.

But Kidd quickly went back to Lively and the Thunder fouled twice more. Lively made all four, boosting the Dallas lead to five with 3:06 left. That was enough for the Mavericks to survive. Lively finished the night 8 of 12 on free throws, perhaps doing enough to dissuade Daigneault from using the strategy in Game 4. We’ll see.

“We like doing it when there’s a numbers advantage to doing it,” He said. “I give Lively credit. He made those last four.”

Other notes

  • Jalen Williams fell to the floor in the third quarter, grabbing at his left ankle and appearing in serious pain. He eventually got up, walked to the locker room with a limp and returned in the fourth quarter. He said he is fine. But it did force him from the game for important moments and hobbled him some. Williams had a relatively quiet 16 points.
  • Chet Holmgren missed both of his 3s and is now 3 of 13 from deep in this series and 27 percent from 3 in the playoffs after making 37 percent in the regular season.
  • Gordon Hayward played for three minutes after Williams left with the ankle scare. He did nothing. Aaron Wiggins, who’d been excellent, missed all three of his 3s.
  • The Thunder, pretty surprisingly, didn’t go to the double-big look of Holmgren and Jaylin Williams after it worked to success the first two games.


(Photo of P.J. Washington shooting over Chet Holmgren: Tim Heitman / Getty Images)