Sunday, May 22, 2011

Bill Haisten: First-half debacle flatten Thunder

By BILL HAISTEN World Sports Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY - At some point during the mid-1990s, when Bill Self coached basketball at Oral Roberts University, three young brothers from Tulsa performed during halftime of a Golden Eagles home game at the Mabee Center.

On Saturday, the same three brothers - Taylor, Isaac and Zac Hanson - performed the national anthem before Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.

Self now coaches at Kansas, but he is an Oklahoman who appreciates big-event basketball. He was in the OKC Arena on Saturday, seated about a dozen rows behind the Thunder bench and sharing the experience with 18,000 of his state brethren.

Unfortunately for so many who paid hundreds of dollars for tickets and $6 per beer, Hanson sang a lot better than the Thunder played basketball.

The final score of Dallas 93, OKC 87 does not reflect the extent to which the Thunder was truly terrible during the first half.

If OKC's players had some quit in them, they might have gotten beat by 40. They made it interesting during the fourth period, but, ultimately, they could not overcome their own first-half ineptitude.

In spite of an uncharacteristically sub-par stat line for Dirk Nowitzki (18 points, 7-of-21 shooting), the Mavs took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series and atoned for Thursday's home loss to Oklahoma City.

Thunder guard Russell Westbrook was benched in Game 2 and came back with a 30-point Game 3, but his teammates on the bench were no-shows. After a 50-point Thursday in Dallas, the Thunder bench was a 16-point dud on Saturday.

Game 4 is set for Monday, also in OKC.

On Saturday, the Thunder sentenced itself to defeat with a brutally bad first half, laying an egg at least equal in size to the OKC Arena. The Mavs flourished while the Thunder failed time and again.

While OKC missed on 13 of its first 16 shots from the field, Dallas rolled to a 23-point lead. During a first-half timeout, Oklahoma City's bison mascot attempted to shoot T-shirts into the crowd, but the mission was flawed. Even the T-shirt cannon misfired.

When the half ended, Dallas led 52-36. The Thunder was 29 percent from the field, 0-of-8 on 3-pointers and committed nine turnovers. There was a 20-5 deficit in bench scoring. As was the case during two regular-season victories here, the Mavs seemed quite comfortable in the Thunder's gym.

And when the second half began, there were no early signs of improvement. During the first Dallas possession, Jason Kidd swished a 3-pointer. The first OKC possession went something like this: Westbrook dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble - airball.

Last month, in Game 4 of their first-round series with Portland, the Mavericks blew a 23-point, fourth-quarter cushion and lost on the Blazers' home floor. The effects could have been devastating, but there was no hangover for the Mavs.

Dallas wound up winning that series in six games, with the close-out contest played in Portland. On Saturday, after OKC had rallied from 23 down to a four-point deficit in the fourth quarter, there undoubtedly was a feeling of deja vu throughout sports bars in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. But the Mavericks responded with timely buckets and finished the deal.

Saturday's Game 3 was reminiscent of Game 3 of last year's Lakers-Thunder series - the first NBA playoff game conducted in the state of Oklahoma. That same night, OU quarterback Sam Bradford was the first pick overall in the NFL draft. As the Laker-Thunder tip-off approached, the excitement level in downtown Oklahoma City was off the charts. Moments later, OKC fans got motion sickness from watching the Lakers run downcourt for easy baskets. Los Angeles bolted to a 15-3 cushion. Midway through the third period, the Lakers led by 11 points.

That night, the Thunder mustered some magic, rallying for a 101-96 victory.

There was no magic on Saturday.

There was an admirable second-half effort, but it wasn't enough to offset the Thunder's train wreck of a first half. That first half might have killed OKC's chances of winning this series.

In order to advance to the NBA Finals, OKC must defeat Dallas three times in a span of no more than four games. Don't count it.

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