DALLAS -- This was the adjustment game. Game 2 usually is. Two days after Oklahoma City and Dallas got their first long postseason look at each other, the Thunder adjusted better. That's why the most important person Thursday night wasn't Thunder superstar Kevin Durant, who scored 24 points, or sixth man James Harden, who played brilliantly in place of benched All-Star Russell Westbrook.
The MVP of this game was OKC coach Scotty Brooks, because he out-adjusted the Mavericks. There were big mismatches Thursday, like Harden vs. Jason Terry, Durant vs. Shawn Marion, and Eric Maynor vs. Jose Juan Barea. But the biggest mismatch was Brooks vs. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle.
That's why the Thunder beat the Mavs 106-100, tying the series at 1-1 before it moves to Oklahoma City for the next two games. Because Carlisle got spanked.
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Brooks wouldn't say so after the game -- he and Carlisle are friends and former teammates in the Continental Basketball Association -- but if you watched Game 1, then watched Game 2, you know it. Because you saw it. This game was different because Scott Brooks made it different. And because Rick Carlisle was powerless to stop it.
"Sometimes you get your butt kicked," Carlisle said. "You've got to take it like a man. We've got to respond."
Carlisle better have been including his coaching staff in that comment, because the Thunder didn't just outscore the Mavericks. They outsmarted them. Outworked them. Out-defended them. And that's on the coaches.
It started with the Thunder's defense on Dirk Nowitzki, which was radically different from Tuesday. Yes, Nowitzki scored 29 points in Game 2. I'm not suggesting Oklahoma City shut down Nowitzki. But Nowitzki had 48 points in Game 1, and he got to the foul line 24 times. He shot jumpers over the OKC defense whenever he wanted.
None of that happened in Game 2. Before the game, Brooks told the media exactly what his team would do differently to Nowitzki, and I'll be damned, he wasn't lying. After Brooks vowed to get more physical with Nowitzki, denying him the ball and getting in his grill once he did get it, his players did just that. Nick Collison was denying Nowitzki -- literally, getting in front of him, leaning on him, as if he were defending the post -- 20 feet out.
And when Nowitzki did get the ball, Collison -- or Serge Ibaka or Durant, who also took turns on him -- would guard him chest-to-chest, forcing Nowitzki to drive. When help defenders stopped his progress, Nowitzki found open teammates. And after an early flurry when Jason Kidd hit two 3-pointers as the Mavs built a 21-11 lead, the Mavericks started to miss those shots. Nowitzki was 10 of 17 (58.8 percent). The rest of the Mavs were 25 of 63 (39.7 percent).
"I thought we did a good job of really getting into him and not allowing him to lace it up and just shoot it over our head," Brooks said. "We did a good job, but it's still not easy. The guy still had nearly 30 points, and I thought we played as well as we possibly could."
Another defensive adjustment by the Thunder was to give less space to Terry and Barea, who combined for 45 points in Game 1. This time, open shots were less plentiful and driving room was almost non-existent. Result? Terry and Barea combined for just 19 points.
Which means they were outscored by Eric Maynor and Daequan Cook (21 points combined) and also by James Harden (23 by himself).
"I can't remember the last time we lost the battle of the bench," Barea said. "It was going to happen at some point and it happened tonight and I give them a lot of credit. Their bench just played better tonight."
And their coach coached better, too. Every button Brooks pushed, it worked. It started in the first quarter when his players were giving a listless effort defensively, leading to three consecutive run-out baskets -- Marion's dunk, and back-to-back finishes by Tyson Chandler on alley-oop passes from Kidd -- and Brooks called time to chew his team out.
"Yeah, Scotty was very upset," Durant said.
If Brooks needed any help firing up his team, Mavs center Brendan Haywood provided it. He lamely fouled Durant on a drive to the basket, ignoring the ball and trying to stop Durant with a two-hand push. Durant responded by elevating to nearly eye-level with the rim and throwing a semi-dunk, semi-fastball through the rim. When he finally descended, the normally mild-mannered Durant glared at Haywood long enough to draw a technical foul, but so what? The Thunder were off and running, and they poured it on until they led 37-35. The game went back and forth until the fourth quarter ... when Brooks made the most shocking coaching move of the game.
He never played Russell Westbrook. Not for a single minute in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. Understand, Westbrook isn't merely the Thunder's starting point guard. He's one of the most accomplished young players in NBA history -- one of just five players to produce 4,000 points, 1,500 assists and 1,000 rebounds in his first three seasons. The other four? Oscar Robertson, Penny Hardaway, LeBron James, Chris Paul.
Brooks kept that guy on the bench for the fourth quarter.
And it worked, obviously. Harden was hitting monster buckets -- he finished the third quarter with a four-point play against Terry, then started the fourth with another 3-pointer against Terry -- and never stopped. He scored 14 points in the final 12-plus minutes, and Maynor and Cook combined for nine points in the fourth quarter. That's 23 points from three players, none of them named Kevin Durant.
How could you do it, Brooks was asked. How could you leave Westbrook -- who cheered on his teammates during the game and appeared happy with the win afterward -- on the bench all quarter?
"I had that decision the last six or so minutes, but we were increasing the lead," Brooks said. "We were making shots. I didn't want to mess with the rhythm."
Good call. And now the rhythm of the series has been altered. The Thunder stole home-court advantage, meaning Dallas has to win at least once on the road to advance to the NBA Finals. The Thunder also found a way to slow Nowitzki and the Mavericks' high-scoring guards off the bench. Game 2 was nothing like Game 1. Scott Brooks did that.
"Sometimes," as Carlisle said, "you get your butt kicked."
So how's he going to respond?