When Dallas took the court Thursday night at home, down 0-2 to Oklahoma City, the defending champs were fully aware what the consequences of their performance represented. "Game 3 is Game 7," Mavericks guard Jason Terry said on Wednesday.
The truncated 66-game regular season hasn't been friendly to the Mavericks. 2011 Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki admittedly entered the year out of shape, a visibly upset Lamar Odom ate his way out of Dallas and Jason Kidd has looked every bit of 39 years old.
When I spent time with head coach Rick Carlisle in the offseason, he estimated that Kidd had a solid couple of years left. No matter how we define the term though, the heavy-footed Kidd simply hasn't been able to generate the same magic he did in last season's title run. He is shooting just 26.7 percent and is 1-6 from the field with five points in the fourth quarters of three games in the series.
Using both Game 3 and history as an indication, this series is over. Dallas was dismantled at home 95-79 while shooting just 34.2. Furthermore, no team in NBA history has ever come back to win a series down 0-3.
"Last year coming down the stretch, we knew we'd find a way to win," Nowitzki said after Game 2. "[We knew we'd] get the big stop, get the big shot, get to the line, whatever we needed to happen to get the win."
The contrast in styles between Dallas and OKC is palpable.
The Mavs are your classic half-court offense that run everything through Dirk. It is a painfully slow, albeit very deliberate team on both ends. Its youngest starter right now is Delonte West, who is 27. All of the other players are in their 30s. Tyson Chandler is long gone to New York, and the Mavs -- forced to start either Brendan Haywood or Ian Mahinmi -- no longer possess a lethal rim protector. J.J. Barea's absence has left the team without its best pick-and-roll operator and one of its key late-game shot-makers.
The Thunder, meanwhile, are the swashbuckling group of 20-somethings featuring three future perennial All-Stars in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden -- and maybe another in Serge Ibaka. Even so, perhaps most telling in this series isn't the difference in Dallas from one year to the next, but the difference in Oklahoma City.
"They have another year under their belt," Kidd said. "This is a different team in sense of maturity and understanding the game. They're getting better."
Even while Durant -- now the league's reigning scoring champ three years running -- struggled to find his stroke throughout the first two games, the Thunder managed to win those games with efficient offense, sound decision making and high level defense.
As 2011 taught us however, OKC is just one or two heinous performances away from Westbrook taking errant jumpers and veteran-led Dallas seizing control.
Thunder head man Scott Brooks though, believes that last season was merely a necessary lesson for his baby-faced roster: "We were young," he said recently. "And when you're young, you're still trying to learn about yourself, you're trying to learn the league and you don't have time to focus on the little things because you're trying to just survive."
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