|Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki (41) of Germany reacts in the first half of Game 4 of the NBA Western Conference finals basketball series against the Oklahoma City Thunder Monday, May 23, 2011, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)|
On verge of NBA finals, Mavs coach pushes basics
DALLAS—Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd were told Tuesday to stay home and relax. The day after leading the Mavericks to one of their greatest comeback victories, and the day before they could earn another chance at their first NBA title, they deserved some time to lounge around and let it all soak in.
Besides, when they arrive at work Wednesday, coach Rick Carlisle will have plenty of other things for them to think about.
Like getting more rebounds, committing fewer turnovers and playing better defense the first 43 minutes so they don't need another historic comeback.
Carlisle doesn't expect his veteran squad to lose its focus after going up 3-1 in the Western Conference finals and getting a day off, but he's not taking any chances. With the Oklahoma City Thunder on the ropes, he wants Dallas to knock them out right away, in Game 5 at home on Wednesday night.
"I know that (the Thunder) are going to come in tomorrow and they're going to come back at us hard, as they've done every game," Carlisle said. "We'll have to play our best game to close them out. ... We've got to be careful about getting away with how happy we are."
History shows they should be pretty giddy.
Only eight teams have overcome a 3-1 deficit. Only two did it by winning twice on the road, which Oklahoma City would have to do, and those two teams had the experience and wisdom to pull it off: the defending champion Rockets in 1995, and the 1968 Celtics, who'd won nine of the previous 11 titles.
The youth and inexperience of the Thunder was evident in their Game 4 collapse.
Leading by 15 with 5 minutes left, Oklahoma City was cruising toward tying the series at 2-2. Playing at home, in a game they'd never trailed, All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook couldn't make it hold up.
Durant missed his final six shots. He was so distraught afterward that he didn't even speak with his mom or grandmother. His spirits weren't much higher Tuesday.
"It's a bad feeling, but we've got faith," he said. "I'm just going to lay it all on the line."
Thunder coach Scott Brooks refuses to use youth as an excuse for anything, always noting that even in three years his best players will still be in their mid-20s. He sees this game as one of the lumps that comes with growing up as NBA players.
His immediate concern is how they respond, primarily Durant.
"When you get punched, you have to get up," Brooks said. "You have no other choice. If you don't, you're not going to grow, you're not going to get better as a player."
Oklahoma City had been incredibly resilient, never losing consecutive games this postseason and six times during the regular season. Only once did the Thunder lose three in a row, and that was a string of games against eventual division champions right after their rotation-shaking trade for center Kendrick Perkins.
In their one playoff series last season, Oklahoma City immediately followed its third loss with their fourth. This season, the Thunder are 1-0 when facing elimination, having won a Game 7 against Memphis last round.
"We can still make it a series," said Brooks, a backup point guard on the '95 Rockets. "It's always about being mentally ready for the challenge, because it is a challenge. There's no question we have a big challenge tomorrow, but it's a challenge that our guys will embrace."
Before this series, Kidd said the Mavericks' experience would only matter if they faced a situation where their wisdom would matter. It was easy to see down the stretch Monday night.
Nowitzki did most of the scoring, but Kidd contributed some great defense and the go-ahead 3-pointer in overtime. Shawn Marion provided more great defense, including a blocked shot on a potential game-winner by Durant at the end of regulation. Jason Terry also hit some big baskets in overtime.
Like everyone else on the Mavericks, those four veterans lack a championship ring. All have come close, with Kidd losing in the finals twice, Nowitzki and Terry losing the 2006 finals with Dallas and Marion being on some top-notch Phoenix clubs that couldn't get past the conference finals.
"There's a laser-like focus with this group to do whatever we can to get the next win," Carlisle said. "It's been a group that's believed in themselves all year long. We don't quit. We never give up. A lot of those qualities came into play last night. ... They know what it's about for us. We're trying to get somewhere this franchise has never gotten. There's a real resolve there."
Nowitzki embodies that resolve.
The big German was so good in the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 4 that Magic Johnson brought up comparisons to Michael Jordan. On Tuesday, Johnson tweeted, "There is nobody playing better than Dirk right now."
Carlisle agrees, but more is needed.
"For him and for us, it's not about grading a guy on where he is astrologically in comparison with whatever," Carlisle said. "It's being prepared to do whatever you have to do to get the next win. The next win five times is what we're looking at."