No matter how well the Mavericks are playing, sometimes I look at an upcoming game and just get a bad feeling about it. This was one of those games, as the Thunder are an intimidating team even without 2013-14 MVP Kevin Durant on the court. In fact, there may not be a more accurate team name in all of sports. The Thunder’s offense is as powerful as the deafening rumble that originates from the sky, and Russell Westbrook is invariably the lightning that ignites it.
Although Oklahoma City came into the game at just 7-6 (including 2-3 without Durant), the record doesn’t accurately tell the team’s story, as their offensive rating is second only to the Warriors, who are more like a god in the heavens who controls the lightning as it strikes if we’re sticking with the analogy introduced in the previous paragraph. The Thunder haven’t been nearly as impressive away from the ball, but Basketball Reference’s Simple Rating System has them eighth in the league following last night’s win. Again, Durant or not, this is a scary team, and it would have been another impressive win for Dallas had they pulled it out, especially since they were in Thunder territory — in the eye of the storm, so to speak.
I’ve mentioned this countless times already on this blog, but I’m seeing many of these players for the first time in live action, and although Westbrook’s reputation certainly preceded him, I had never witnessed him on the court before last night. He started off quietly, grabbing a few early-game steals but only scoring 7 points prior to halftime. He exploded in the second half, scoring 13 in the third quarter and another 11 in the fourth, including a pull-up jumper with 24 seconds to play that put Oklahoma City up 117-114 — the score the game would end on. On top of his 31 points, Westbrook also notched 5 rebounds, 11 assists, and 5 steals for one of the more complete games you can get out of a player.
I’m not sure what to make of Westbrook. By just about any advanced metric, he is the best player the Mavs have seen all year, and it showed. He’s obviously immensely talented, and his signature cradling of the ball as he takes his two steps post-dribble immediately caught my attention. On the other hand, he may be an asshole. He plays with what looks like a perpetual smirk on his face and what appears to be more swagger than is necessary. After Westbrook was fouled by Dwight Powell in the middle of the third quarter on a drive to the basket, Chandler Parsons politely tried to help him up only to have his hand slapped away by a randomly angry Westbrook. A few seasons ago, he swatted a half-court shot the Nuggets mascot took that would have won the crowd free food — and then again when Rocky tried to sneak in a second one later in the game following a timeout. Then there was the time he got called for a five-second back-to-the-basket violation and spent the next several minutes freaking out on the bench until he went to the locker room to calm down. Maybe Westbrook isn’t a full-on asshole, but he’s definitely mercurial, and I’d be lying if I said his antics didn’t get a little under my skin.
The good news that came out of the loss was that the Mavericks stood toe-to-toe with these offensive juggernauts and very nearly came out on top thanks to shooting 53 percent from the field, including a 52.6 percent mark from three-point territory — that’s regressing to the mean in dramatic fashion. Every bit as exciting was the official return of JaVale McGee, who I’ve been pining for in vain all season. After repeatedly insisting McGee would win the 2015-16 MVP award, he finally entered a game with two minutes left to play in the first quarter last night and promptly scored on three straight possessions, making me look like some kind of NBA soothsayer. He finished with 8 points and 6 rebounds in just under 11 minutes, and the frown-inducing plus-minus rating of -18 doesn’t mean a whole lot in that amount of playing time. It’s more fun to focus on the positive signs, and there were plenty of them, not the least of which is that he grabbed a game-high 44.4 percent of defensive rebounds while he was on the court. I’m sticking with my MVP prediction.
Several hours removed from the loss, I feel okay about it. It would have been great to get that seventh straight win against the Thunder on the road, and it stung to see the winning streak broken up, but the Mavs are still 9-5 and getting healthier every day. With the encouraging recent performance of Deron Williams, signs that Wes Matthews may be able to find his form soon, and Parsons logging more and more minutes, this team is legitimately fun to watch. I’m beginning to think I may have to set a goal to see them in person once before my inaugural season as an MFFL ends. This is the start of a lifelong love.