We here at Mavs Moneyball love getting the inside scoop, and what better way to do so then getting the word straight from the horse's mouth? J.A. Sherman, of Welcome To Loud City fame, was kind enough to take time out of his terribly busy life to answer some questions I posed to him about the Thunder, and what we can expect in the games to come. I also answered his questions, which can be found here.
This story, the dynamic between Scott Brooks, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Durant, has had legs since the first round, and last night is but the most recent chapter. I think that, aside from what everyone else has written on the subject, what this latest game addresses is Westbrook's (and to a lesser degree, every player's) need and ability to self-regulate. There have been a number of games this year where Westbrook would become emotionally charged and Brooks would pull him out of the game, allowing Maynor to run the show until Westbrook calmed down. However, at no point did Westbrook ever fail to re-enter the game in those cases. He always knew that it was his job to close, no matter what kind of play preceded it. Well, this last game kind of changes that approach.
What the game really meant was, if Westbrook cannot self-regulate his emotions and erratic play, then he would have to sit until Brooks' back-up plan lost his right to run the offense. Westbrook now knows that he must check himself in before Brooks checks him out.
Of course, the big question is, can he? I think he can, but what becomes the risk then is that he starts to play timid basketball where he's always looking over his shoulder. In a way, that is even worse because while it may lessen Westbrook's mistakes, it also takes away the inner fire that he has to have if he's going to be the scorer the Thunder need him to be.
It is understandable that James Harden might be a surprise to Mavericks fans, since all three of our regular season games were played before the All-Star break, and I actually look to that break as one of the turning points in Harden's season. Before that point, Harden looked like a man who was not really sure what he was being asked to do. He is very deferential to his teammates (previously Jeff Green was included in that group) and so his offense often came as an afterthought. It was not until the break, and then the Big Trade (Perkins for Green) that Harden was finally given a solid role - he was to be the primary offensive option for the Thunder's second team. Once that role was clearly defined, Harden's approach to basketball really took off.
Not only has Harden proven that he can coordinate the offense effectively along side Maynor, he has also proven that he is one of the key cogs in the Thunder's 4th quarter offense. In fact, his absence in the Thunder's game three loss to the Grizzlies was a bit of an epiphany to both Brooks and the fans. In other words, Harden's presence is key when the game is on the line. It is so because he has excellent shot discretion, he rarely turns the ball over, he is an excellent passer, and he has a knack for knocking down huge shots. With apologies to Lakers great James Worthy, I now refer to Harden as "Big Game James."
So in sum, yes, the Mavericks have to game plan against Harden if they want to do better against the Thunder bench.
3. In rounds 1 and 2, we saw our games turn chippy with tempers starting to flare after the first few games. Do you see this series getting more physical?
I think that we do, and it is not merely because Kendrick Perkins and Tyson Chandler are sort of the emotional valves of each team. I think we will see it because the Thunder know that they have to play that way to get a maximum effort out of their defense. In game one, the Thunder D was very passive in how it approached Dallas (just like in game one of their Memphis series) and as a result the Mavs did whatever they wanted. So in game two, we knew that in order for the Thunder to play better defense, they had to get much, much more physical with the Mavs to test their mettle.
I don't think they made a conscious decision to go nasty on the Mavs, but when you play hard, relentless defense, the hightened emotions are a natural result. The Thunder need to tap into that inner-nasty if they're going to compete, because otherwise, the Mavs will continue to push them around.
As an aside, I do think the refs have been a bit quick on the whistle when it comes to technical fouls. Pro basketball doesn't get much more emotional than where the guys are at, at this point, and so it does a disservice to the game if the refs are going to penalize them for the slightest glance in the wrong way or a stare that lingers a second too long. Save the T's for the real stuff, and let these guys have some fun.
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Again, our sincerest thanks to J.A. Sherman and the fans over at Welcome To Loud City. This should be one heck of a series, and we look forward to keeping up with y'all as it plays out!