OKLAHOMA CITY -- Dallas can't run with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Dallas can't jump with the Thunder, either. Oklahoma City is quicker, stronger, younger. Physically, across the board, Oklahoma City is superior.
But Dallas is the better basketball team, because this ain't a track meet. Nor is it the NBA Draft Combine. Nobody is using a stopwatch on Jason Kidd's speed or a yardstick on Dirk Nowitzki's vertical, and nobody will ever, ever put Shawn Marion's church-league "jumper" on an instructional video.
But Dallas is beating the Thunder -- led by elite athletes like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and even Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha -- because this game isn't played in a catalog. It's played on the court, and the Mavericks are better because they're smarter.
That's not an IQ comment, because I have no idea how smart most of these guys are. Six of the 10 starters in the Western Conference finals didn't attend college, coming to the NBA out of high school or from overseas, and none of the four who did go to a Division I school stuck around for more than a year or two. So I'm not here to tell you one team is smarter than another, at least not in the classroom. No clue.
But it's obvious that one team is smarter than the other team on the court, and that team is Dallas, and that's why the Mavericks are leading 2-1 entering Game 4 on Monday night in Oklahoma City.
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It's more than Jason Kidd vs. Russell Westbrook, although that's the best place to start seeing how those are the point guards, dictating pace, ball movement and defensive strategy. Westbrook is one of the most fabulous athletes in the NBA, a Derrick Rose knockoff who can get anywhere he wants, anytime he wants. The 22-year-old Westbrook is the hare, while Kidd, 38, is the tortoise. Once upon a time he was a physical marvel, but those days are gone. Today, Kidd gets by on guile. He can't get anywhere he wants, anytime he wants. So he lets the ball do the movement for him.
"Jason's the best," says Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "He's one of the best teammates you'll ever have in the NBA. I was looking at the stats the other night [after Game 1], and he's probably the happiest guy in the whole room -- and he only took three shots. Because his team won."
His team won Game 1, and it won Game 3, and his teams have won over the years at a high level -- New Jersey has been to the playoffs just six times in the last 13 years ... the only six years Kidd played there -- because Kidd knows how to play. Westbrook knows how to score, but Kidd knows how to win.
Westbrook is still learning. The Thunder have won just one game, and that's the game Westbrook spent the fourth quarter on the bench. In this series alone, Kidd has 4½ times as many assists (26), and twice as many steals (12), as turnovers (six). Westbrook? He has a ton of points, but also 11 assists and 15 turnovers. And just three steals in three games.
Forget about the points -- Kidd is embarrassing Westbrook.
And it's not Westbrook's fault. I'm not blaming him. He is what he is, a tremendous athlete who can score. But he's not a facilitator. He's not a guy who makes everyone around him better, which means he's a lot like the rest of his team. The Thunder have great athletes at four of the five starting slots, and they have above-average athletes like Daequan Cook, James Harden and Eric Maynor coming off the bench, but they don't know how to win at the highest level. Maybe they'll get there eventually, or maybe they'll need to acquire more savvy veterans like Kendrick Perkins -- I'm thinking Shane Battier or Chauncey Billups -- to make it happen.
In the meantime they have the best scorer on the planet, Durant, getting ignored by his teammates down the stretch of Game 3, and they have Ibaka driving the lane like he's Westbrook, shooting a finger roll like he's George Gervin, and throwing up an air ball from two feet. Great athlete. Explosive play. Terrible idea.
The Mavericks have 33-year-old Marion intellectually abusing Durant and Ibaka, pick-and-rolling them to death or getting lost in the lane before emerging on the perimeter, so open that he can get off his god-awful set shot.
The Mavericks have Jose Juan Barea using fakes and screens to create more havoc in the lane than a short, pudgy guy should ever create in an NBA game. The Mavericks have Nowitzki scoring from mid-range, leaving the 3s to Durant (who has missed his last 13) and the dunks to Ibaka (who misses everything else).
The Mavericks have the notion that basketball is a team game, not a collection of televised highlights, and that's why my lasting image of Game 3 was something that happened late in the third quarter during a break in the action. While officials watched a courtside TV monitor to see if Kidd should be shooting two free throws or three, Kidd gathered his team in an impromptu huddle at midcourt. All five Mavericks surrounded him, discussing strategy.
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City players formed five islands. They didn't stand together. They didn't talk. They didn't even look at each other. This wasn't about chemistry -- this was about basketball IQ.
Dallas has it. Oklahoma City does not.
Yes, Kevin Durant is coming soon to a poster near you. But the Mavericks are more than likely going to the NBA Finals. Smart can be sexy, too.