OKLAHOMA CITY — Four or five more like this and the winner of this Thunder-Mavericks series might need help getting out of the bed for Western Conference semifinals.
Their budding rivalry has suddenly turned physical, nasty even, with shoulder shrugs and forearms from Dirk Nowitzki and Kendrick Perkins early (see above), marking their latest episode.
The Thunder emerged from the rubble to claim their second straight narrow win over the Mavericks Tuesday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena, surviving 102-99 on free throws in the final minute from Kevin Durant and James Harden. Durant made two with 50.4 seconds left and Harden hit four more foul shots to close it out for the Thunder, who had to rally for the win after leading by as many as 16 points early.
Russell Westbrook, who torched the Mavericks for the second straight game, finished with a team-high 29 points to carry the Thunder. Durant finished with 26 and 10 rebounds, but is just 15-for-44 from the floor in these first two games.
“We knew these guys were going to play physical, they are a physical team,” Durant said. “The refs did a great job of letting us play. We just have to continue to take that punch from them and do a great job of sticking together. Games like these in the playoffs are going to get chippy.”
Jason Terry missed two 3-point shots from the left wing in front of the Thunder bench in the final seconds, either one of which would have tied the game. The Mavericks led in the final minute of both games here only to lose both times in the final seconds, with Durant’s jumper with 1.5 seconds to play providing the difference in Game 1.
The Thunder lead the defending world champions 2-0 as everyone packs up and heads down the interstate for Game 3 Thursday night in Dallas.
“We leave here disappointed but not dismayed,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “We just haven’t made enough plays. It’s tough. There’s no question about that. They’ve made one more play than we have in both games and that’s how playoff basketball is. As my good friend Ron Washington would say, ‘That’s how baseball go sometimes.’ You have to give them credit for what they’re doing. We can’t dig ourselves into a 16-point hole in the first half. I loved the way we fought back. The guys hung in their and kept their poise. They held serve and we have to go home and hold serve.”
The tennis analogy seems inappropriate, given the mixed martial art nature of the action on the floor in Game 2. And you can bet things are going to get even more intense Thursday night with the Mavericks seeing their home crowd in the playoffs for the first time since Game 5 of The Finals.
They’ve been smashing each other from start to finish since the opening tip of Game 1, cultivating a genuine disdain for each other that has grown like a weed out of their testy matchup in the Western Conference finals last year.
There were 54 fouls called and 71 free throw attempts between the two teams in Game 2 of this series. But the fireworks actually started early, when Nowitzki and Perkins exchanged blows and words in front of the Thunder bench with 5:04 to play in the first quarter. Nowitzki, still smarting from an incidental smack on the face from Serge Ibaka from a previous possession, gave Perkins a shoulder to the chest after he and Perkins wrestled for position in the paint. Perkins retaliated by shoving him back and they were quickly separated by teammates and game officials.
Double technical fouls were issued to Nowitzki and Perkins, and players from both sides barked back and forth. Carlisle even had words with Perkins as the Thunder big man was being restrained by Thunder coach Scott Brooks and others.
“It’s just grown men out here playing basketball and teams trying to advance,” Perkins said. “You know, you’re just out here playing. There’s nothing to hurt nobody or nothing like that. Neither side is going to bow down. They’re not, we’re not, so we’re just out here playing and competing on a high level.”
The chippy play continued all night.
“Look, it’s playoff basketball, it’s physical,” Carlisle said when asked if the physical play in the series has crossed the line. “We don’t like the cheap shots when they give them. And they don’t like them if we give them … but the dirty bull[expletive]’s got to stop. We don’t want anybody getting hurt, either way. Either way.”
Nowitzki, who led Dallas with 31 points, dismissed the dust-up with Perkins as just playoff basketball.
“He tried to bully me, I bullied back a little bit,” he said. “We talked about some stuff and moved on.”
He also promised that the defending champs will not back down and will absolutely not hand over the crown without a fight.
“We’re not going to give it to them,” he said. “They’re going to have to take it.”