NBA WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: OKC Thunder wins Game 2 – will the Dallas Mavs’ win Game 3?

Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) shoots against Oklahoma City Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka (9) during the first quarter of play in Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference Finals at American Airlines Center in Dallas on May 19, 2011

Not many NBA teams are able to span 27 days between playoff losses. But, the span will go no longer for the Dallas Mavericks as they were punched hard in the gut on Thursday Night at the AAC, dropping a 106-100 Thriller in Game 2 to Oklahoma City.

It is easy to focus exclusively on the Mavericks after these playoff games and whether the result is good, bad, or ugly, I enjoy spending time on the Dallas side of the equation. But, after last night, I think the lead has to be the coaching gambles that were won by Scotty Brooks in what most-likely go down as the biggest win in Thunder History.

Look at it from that perspective with me for a moment.

So, this young coach, who is handling an extremely young and inexperienced team, is entering the 4th Quarter with a 1-point lead. He only has that lead because James Harden just converted a 4-point play at the very end of the 3rd Quarter when he hit a trey and was fouled. He goes with his customary bench lineup to begin the 4th and to get his starters some rest and some time to harbor some foul trouble to Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka before they will have to go back in the paint and battle Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler for the final few minutes. Brooks cannot insert them back in the lineup too early, because he can’t lose them too early. If he does, it is down to very little to try to leave town with the split that the Thunder so desired.

Brooks starts the 4th with Harden, DaeQuan Cook , Eric Maynor, Nick Collison, and of course, Kevin Durant. If they could hold off Dallas for 4 minutes or so, it will be time to get Russell Westbrook back in (18 points, 4 assists) and try to bring this thing home.

What followed were just under 9 minutes of clinical offense that put 25 points on the board. With 3:15 to play, the game was largely in hand at 102-92. The Thunder had the ball 15 times during that 8:45 to start the 4th. They scored on 11 of the 15 possessions. It was absolutely devastating to Dallas who was able to get Dirk just about anything he wanted during that stretch, but it still wasn’t enough to keep up with the exhibition that James Harden, Kevin Durant, and friends were putting on at the other end.

Sometimes, you blame your defense. If you review that 4th Quarter stretch, you will certainly be frustrated at a moment or two, but for the most part, I submit the Thunder were taking shots that you don’t mind conceding. Harden and Durant were both hitting very tough, well defended shots from a great distance. But, sometimes, especially in the NBA where shotmakers are everywhere, there is just nothing you can do.

And on those rare occasions where Harden or Durant did not carry the mail, here is Eric Maynor, the pride of Virginia Commonwealth, driving in for a tough running bucket. He had 2 baskets during this stretch, too. Daequan Cook chipped in 5 points, including a 3 out of a timeout to make it 98-92. And Nick Collison even added a dunk and some rather important moments on defense – 1 which he just wrestled the ball away from Nowitzki and started the ball the other way.

Cook, Maynor, and Collison? Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City starters – aside from the league’s leading scorer – had a great view of the proceedings, but certainly spent glances wondering when Brooks was going to send them back in the game. It wasn’t as if Westbrook wasn’t playing well. He had a very nice first 3 Quarters. Obviously, he is the item of some discussion based on periods of erratic play, but he is also a pillar of this franchise and these are the moments for him to shine. Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka stand by to force the issues in the paint where Dirk is knifing in for basket after basket.

But Brooks held fast with his lineup. With 7 minutes to go, the thoughts crossed his mind. The offense was fine but the defense was not stopping Dirk and JJ Barea. Inside 6 minutes, it is still a 1-possession game. This is a spot where most coaches certainly take their winnings from their bench standing up to the pressure on the road and play it by the book; getting his starters back in the game to finish the contest.

Brooks opted to roll the dice again. And his next decision (to not change his lineup) is the type of decision that if it doesn’t work is widely ridiculed by the media and fans based on the outcome. How can you let Eric Maynor and Nick Collison stay in the game when you have better options on the bench? And that is where it worked. From 5:30 to go to 3:15 to go, the Thunder bench crew beat the hard Charging Mavericks 7-0. Taking a 3 point lead and pushing it to 10 with a 3 from Cook, a Maynor runner, and one of the most in-your-face jumpers of the playoffs as Harden buries one from the top of the circle with confidence and a beard that made Dallas observers channel nightmares of Baron Davis.

He never went back to his bench. The combined playing time in the 4th Quarter from the OKC 4 starters not named Durant? Less than a minute. 37 seconds for Ibaka and 13 seconds for Thabo Sefolosha. Westbrook and Perkins had 0:00.

What a gutty decision that had a very high risk/reward ratio. The Mavericks not only lost the battle of the benches, but the Thunder bench beat the Mavericks in crunch time. Quite impressive.

From a Dallas perspective, you certainly can find items to critique. You wish the defense could have provided more stops and that Dirk could have showed Collison a few more lessons on the other end. But, sometimes you give away a game and sometimes it is taken from you. In Game 2, I submit that in that 4th Quarter, the game was taken away by the visiting Thunder. Who made tough shots, tough decisions as a coaching staff, and overall deserved to tie this series at 1-1.

If they are going to make those shots under those circumstances from those distances, then I believe you tip your hat, thank the basketball gods that it has been 27 days since you last tasted defeat, and move on to the next one.

As former Cowboys coach Joe Avezzanno used to tell me, “you know, the other team pays its players, too.” (By BOB STURM / Special Contributor