This game was just about over until Rick Carlisle reached all the way to the very bottom of his bag of tricks and wound up with Salah Mejri, the 29-year old third string C from Tunisia who had played a grand total of 45 minutes in the NBA coming into Friday. Mejri is apparently an OKC killer because he had a great showing against the Thunder - 17 points, 9 rebounds and 8 shots - when the Mavs rested all of their guys last week.
There's a lot to like about his game. At 7'2 245 with a 7'3 wingspan, he has the length and athleticism to protect the rim and be a threat as the roll man. He's a less explosive version of Javale McGee who is A) in better shape B) doesn't make as many mental mistakes C) makes free throws and D) has less baggage in terms of his reputation. The Mavs wouldn't have had a chance without Mejri's presence at the rim on both sides of the ball in the 4Q - he finished with 5 points, 1 rebound and 2 blocks in 8 minutes and he was tied for the best plus/minus on the team (+8). How's this for a storyline? Mejri had monstrous blocks on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in crunch time that fueled the Mavs aborted comeback.
You don't want to get too excited about him considering how small the sample size is. No one in the league knows anything about him (although he claims that Durant and Westbrook knew who he was because he blocked their shots in international play) and there's isn't really a scouting report on him at the moment so it's easy for him to surprise teams who don't have a game-plan for attacking him. Nevertheless, he's been very productive when he has gotten on the floor and the idea of Salah Mejri is certainly very enticing to this team. He could theoretically give you the best of both worlds at the C position - more of an offensive threat than Zaza, more defensive awareness than McGee. He's definitely going to need some minutes, if for no other reason than for the Mavs to figure out exactly what they have in this 7'2 international man of mystery.
He can play. https://t.co/Sy08fKG5nq— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) January 23, 2016
What worries me is that Mejri's minutes will probably come out of JaVale's and while he still makes a lot of mistakes when he's out there I don't think there's any question that JaVale has been a positive presence for this team. JaVale had 11 points and 4 rebounds in 14 minutes tonight and he had several monstrous pick-and-roll finishes that got the whole building excited. For as much as Zaza has given the team this season, I'd much rather play McGee and Mejri more minutes and become a pure spread pick-and-roll team and use Zaza as a change of pace rebounder/enforcer because that's the best way to maximize everyone else's game on both sides of the ball.
2) Talent beats execution
Before the Mejri Magic Hour began, the story of this game was the way OKC put their foot on the pedal in the 3Q and blew the Mavs out of the water. Dallas had played one of their better halves of the season in the first half and they were out-executing the Thunder to death. I guess they really missed the presence of Steven Adams (who hurt himself in warm-ups) at the rim because they gave up a number of open lay-ups and they had a terrible time communicating and setting up the second line of their defense. I'm not sure how many open shots they gave up on back-door cuts but it was a lot.
That was all well and good but then the 3Q began and OKC was like we have Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka and y'all don't. The Thunder stars just absolutely took over the game and there was really nothing the Mavs could do about it. Westbrook started making dead sprints to the front of the rim off Mavs misses and creating wide open looks for either himself or one of his teammates. Carlisle was moving Wes Matthews between Durant and Westbrook all game to stem the bleeding and whoever he wasn't guarding pretty much had free reign out there. The best teams in the league have to have 2 perimeter stoppers and the Mavs only have one. It's not the biggest problem this team has but it is a big problem in a game like this one.
3) Durant and Westbrook as passers
If the Mavs had a defensive strategy against the Thunder stars that wasn't close your eyes and pray, it was sending a bunch of extra men at them in order to make them pass the ball. If the mark of a well-coached team is that the right guys are shooting the ball, the Thunder weren't particularly well-coached - they took 91 shots and Durant and Westbrook only had 40 and most teams who play them will live with that. None of that is to say that they should have forced the action more - they both made the right pass most of the night (Westbrook still took his share of silly shots of course) and they combined for 14 assists on 7 turnovers. OKC's supporting cast is going to have to knock down shots and they did a good enough job on Friday to pull out the win.
4) The emergence of Cam Payne
From a plus/minus standpoint, the most productive player for OKC was rookie Cam Payne, who is slowly moving into Killa Cam territory. He was +13 in 12 minutes and had 8 points (on 10 shots) and 3 assists (on 2 turnovers). Payne appears to be another keeper from the Thunder scouting department, the one part of their organization that always seems to pull their weight. More important than his individual numbers was the way he controlled the game, ran the pick-and-roll and created good shots for the OKC 2nd when neither Westbrook nor Durant was in. I'm pretty sure the Thunder would still be better off staggering their minutes but if Payne can hold the fort it at least gives them a chance.
At 6'2 180, Payne is never going to wow you physically and his ridiculous haircut only makes him easier to underestimate. He's pretty frail-looking in person, he doesn't have a lot of meat on his bones and he's not a plus athlete but he's a really smart player who knows how to maximize his physical abilities and he doesn't appear to make a lot of the mental mistakes that get rookie PG's sent to the bench. Like most OKC draft picks, he has really long arms (6'7 wingspan) and that helps his cause. He can shoot off the dribble from the 3-point line and he already has a nice floater as well as a great feel for manipulating the defense and finding the open man on the move. He's a player - there's no doubt about that. The question is whether he can survive enough on D that OKC can use him more as the season goes on.
"He was huge. They trapped him out there at half court, which I sort of take as a compliment," said Durant. "If they trap you that mean you're doing something right, so he came out and played well. He is playing with a lot of confidence right now and we are going to need that coming down the line."
5) The Thunder have their closing 5
OKC went with Westbrook - Waiters - Singler - KD - Ibaka tonight and that's the group that I assume they're going to use going forward. Singler has apparently returned from the dead and remembered how to play basketball so that 5-man unit is their best approximation of a group that can play D and stretch the floor around their Big 3. Going with KD at the 4 and Ibaka at the 5 puts the defense in an impossible position and Donovan clearly trusts Waiters over DJ Augustin (too short), Anthony Morrow (can't defend) and Andre Roberson (can't shoot). I wonder if playing Payne with Westbrook in the backcourt and allowing Russ to guard 2's might make more sense long-term but Waiters has the body and the build to play better D than OKC's scrawny rookie so he just needs to take care of the ball and not do too many foolish things on offense.
The Mavs still made a point to attack Singler on defense and that's something to watch going forward. They forced Billy Donovan into making this interesting switch - instead of having Singler on Parsons, Ibaka on Dirk and Durant on Mejri, they moved Durant to Parsons and Singler to Mejri. Dallas then prompty put Singler in the 2-man game and attacked him at the rim but those are the breaks. I like the idea of KD being a defensive stopper and they are clearly going to need their two superstars to play at about as high a level as possible if they are going to have any chance of beating the Spurs AND the Warriors. The question is whether Singler's floor spacing and playmaking is going to be a better fit than playing a bigger guy like Adams and whether they are better off going small with worse players or trying to dictate the match-ups and go big with their best players.
6) Parsons at the 4
This is going to be repetitive for the brave souls who regularly read these recaps but once again Parsons played really well as a small-ball 4. The Mavs made most of their run in the 4Q with Parsons at the 4 and Mejri at the 5. OKC tried to have Enes Kanter and Serge Ibaka out there and Parsons went right around Kanter like he wasn't even there so Donovan had no choice but to go small and put Singler in the game. The thing is that Singler couldn't guard Parsons either, especially with how wide open the floor was for him to operate. Fun fact - Parsons and Singler were in the same recruiting class (2007) and Singler was the No. 4 player in the country while Parsons was at No. 44.
7) The domino effect of Parsons at the 4
In the first half, Carlisle had Dwight Powell as the backup 4 behind Dirk, which worked when he was paired with Zaza and then collapsed in on itself like a dying star when Dirk came back in the game and the Mavs were playing both of them. You just cannot play those two together for any amount of time - the defense can't handle it, especially when they are going up against a line-up that had Kevin Durant on it. Powell was -12 in 7 minutes and that stretch at the end of the 1Q allowed OKC to get back in the game and completely negated a great start by the Mavs.
In the second half, Carlisle played Parsons at the backup 4. The good news is that it meant that neither Powell nor Charlie V got in the game after halftime. The bad news is that playing Parsons at the backup 4 creates a hole in the 2nd unit at the SF position, especially once Wes Matthews comes out of the game. Carlisle went with a 3 PG line-up - JJ Barea, Devin Harris and Deron Williams - and it did not work out very well. This team is one wing short and it has been a problem all season long. It would be nice if Justin Anderson could get those minutes but it would probably take an act of God for Carlisle to be willing to be give a rookie serious minutes.
8) Westbrook's Revenge
Russell Westbrook gets his revenge on J.J. Barea: https://t.co/WmI5c1KrVf— Royce Young (@royceyoung) January 23, 2016
I'm not sure I've ever laughed harder at a Mavs game.
9) Kyle Singler's Hair
Though to be fair this was pretty close.'kyle singler has that 2007 emo kid haircut pic.twitter.com/ahXqLiGzUM— rachael (@RachaelHoops) January 18, 2016
10) Is Mitch McGary a better player than Enes Kanter?
Just throwing that out there.