DALLAS — Dirk Nowitzki showed no rust from a long layoff, making 10 of his first 11 shots and an NBA playoff-record 24 straight free throws on the way to 48 points, leading the Dallas Mavericks to a 121-112 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday night.
Jason Terry scored 24 points and J.J. Barea added 21 points as the Mavericks picked up where they left off in a sweep of the Lakers nine days before. They broke open a tight game with a 13-0 run late in the second quarter and never trailed again, stretching their franchise-record postseason winning streak to seven games.
Game 2 is Thursday night in Dallas, where the Mavs are 6-0 this postseason.
The Thunder — fresh off a seven-game series against Memphis that included a total of four overtimes — led by nine early in the second quarter, then went 6:28 between baskets. They missed 10 shots during that drought and were down by 11 when it ended. They eventually trailed by 16 before clawing within five points with 3:42 left, and six with 48.5 seconds to play.
Kevin Durant followed his 39 points in Game 7 of the previous round by scoring 40, one shy of his most ever in a playoff game. While Nowitzki dominated, Durant’s scoring binge merely helped his team stay close.
Russell Westbrook went from a triple-double in his last game to 20 points, three assists and three rebounds. He missed 12 of his 15 shots, including 10 of his first 11. Despite his poor aim, he had taken more shots than Durant at one point late in the third quarter, fueling the critics who say he’s too much of a scorer and not enough of a distributor.
The Thunder’s big problem, though, was Nowitzki.
Six guys tried stopping him, and the big German either shot over them or put them in foul trouble. He made 13 free throws in the third quarter alone. And when Oklahoma City sent a second defender at him, Nowitzki usually passed to the teammate left open.
Nowitzki finished 12 of 15 from the field and a perfect 24 of 24 at the line. He was two points shy of his most ever in a playoff game. He also had six rebounds, four assists and four blocks.
How good was he? On the series when Nowitzki missed for the first time, a teammate got the ball back to him, and he found Tyson Chandler for a layup.
“I was really looking to shoot early and was able to get my rhythm after the first couple of shots,” Nowitzki said. “I kept attacking and my teammates kept feeding me and feeding me and I was able to take advantage over some smaller players.”
The Thunder came into the series unsure how it would handle Nowitzki because their usual defender, Jeff Green, was traded in February. Serge Ibaka went at him first, then got two quick fouls, turning things over to Nick Collison. Kendrick Perkins, Durant, Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden all took turns with little success.
When things tightened up in the final minutes, Nowitzki helped protect Dallas’ lead with two jumpers over the outstretched arms of 6-foot-10 Serge Ibaka, and an assist on a 3-pointer by Terry with 28.9 seconds left. Chants of “M-V-P!” echoed almost every time he went to the foul line in the fourth quarter.
Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks is going to have to figure something out quick.
The good news for Brooks is that his youngsters kept scrapping all the way to the end. Down a lot on the road to a well-rested veteran team, they could have considered this game a lost cause and saved energy for the next game. Perhaps they remembered Dallas’ history of blowing big, late leads. Earlier this postseason, the Mavericks coughed up a 23-point lead over the final 14 minutes against Portland.