Mavericks vs. Thunder score: What we learned from Game 3 as Dallas supports Luka

The Dallas Mavericks took the lead in their playoff series against the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday afternoon thanks to a 105-101 Game 3 win. The Mavs have handed the Thunder their first two losses of the postseason in back-to-back games to take a 2-1 series lead.

P.J. Washington once again had a big game offensively for Dallas, scoring a team-high 27 points and hitting five 3-pointers. Luka Doncic, who was originally listed as questionable for the game with knee and ankle injuries, had 22 points, while Kyrie Irving came alive in the second half to finish with 22 points and 15 rebounds.

The Thunder stormed out to a 10-point lead with a big run to start the third quarter, but couldn’t fend off the Mavs. OKC got a game-high 31 points from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Jalen Williams had 16 points around an ankle injury, but no other Thunder player scored more than 13 and OKC was out-rebounded 48-41. Here are the biggest takeaways from Game 3.

Luka finally has the team around him he needs

Think about the teams Luka Doncic dragged through the playoffs before this season. Aside from one monster Jalen Brunson run, it all more or less felt the same. If Doncic was Superman, Dallas could win. If he was anything less? Dallas lost. Sure, the Mavericks survived an injury to Doncic against the Jazz in 2022, but that team was combusting already. The Thunder are another matter entirely.

Oklahoma City isn’t just a No. 1 seed. It’s an ascending team with incredible depth and versatility. Beating them with a compromised Doncic would have felt impossible before the series. But that’s exactly what Dallas is doing right now. P.J. Washington has 55 points in the last two games primarily as the beneficiary of all the traps and hedges the Thunder are throwing at Doncic. Dereck Lively II made several clutch free throws when the Thunder tried to hack him down the stretch. And then there’s Kyrie Irving, whose 14 points in the fourth quarter kept the Mavericks afloat when Doncic clearly couldn’t handle the heliocentric workload he is used to.

None of these players were on the Mavericks the last time they reached the postseason. Neither was Derrick Jones Jr. or Daniel Gafford, who also played essential roles. It took them years, but the Mavericks have finally found the right mix of players around their MVP candidate. It’s a gritty, defense-first roster with one other primary shot-creator in Irving but a host of supporting pieces capable of making the open looks Doncic creates for them. The Mavericks can survive an injured Doncic because of this group. If he can get closer to 100% as the postseason progresses? Dallas can win the whole thing.

The Mavericks bullied the Thunder

All season, we wondered when Oklahoma City’s size would finally become a problem. It wasn’t in the regular season. It wasn’t in the first round. It wasn’t in the first two games of this series, in which Oklahoma City won the rebounding battle. The Thunder ranked 28th in rebounding rate this season. They were elite at basically everything else, but made the conscious choice to emphasize athleticism and spacing over pulling in rebounds. It finally came back to haunt the Thunder in Game 3.

At one point, the Mavericks had 15 offensive rebounds to Oklahoma City’s one. The Thunder closed that gap slightly, but the damage was already done to that point. The Mavericks were able to keep several key possessions alive long enough to get their slumping offense on track in the second and third quarters, and that gave them the slim edge they needed to win the game.

It wasn’t just those rebounds that killed the Thunder, though. The Mavericks had a 14-point advantage in the paint. They were able to consistently generate rim-pressure with Daniel Gafford and Dereck Lively in ways that the Thunder simply couldn’t with Chet Holmgren. Dallas is getting frequent lob points. The Thunder are driving into walls.

Oklahoma City is built to win despite these flaws, but doing so means remaining elite in all of those other areas. But the Thunder shot just 33.3% from deep in Game 3. They tied the turnover battle, an area they usually win handily. They took six fewer free-throws. If that is going to be the case in this series, the Thunder can’t keep getting bullied inside like this.

Are the Thunder finally feeling the moment?

Oklahoma City’s shots fell throughout the Pelicans series. They fell in Game 1 against Dallas as well. But in their last two games, Thunder players have hit an uninspiring 10 of 30 attempts from deep in each of them. The percentage is going to fluctuate. The volume is a major concern here. No team in the NBA took fewer than 31.2 3’s per game this season. Oklahoma City has been held below that league low twice in a row. As a team that led the league in 3-point percentage in the regular season, not being able to find those shots is pretty significant.

So what’s going on here? There’s a little bit of raw shooting variance going on here. Sometimes players just miss shots they typically make. Dallas has also played remarkable defense in the last two games. They’re managing to close out hard on just about every except Josh Giddey, which is a strategic choice, and they’re doing that without compromising the integrity of the rest of their defense. Their rotations have been nearly flawless. The Thunder are getting nothing easy.

But it’s hard not to see the all of the good shots the Thunder are passing up in search of great ones that aren’t coming and wonder if the youngest team in the NBA is finally starting to feel the gravity of this moment. This is Oklahoma City’s first go-round in the playoffs with this core. It’s a different sport, and the players are clearly still adjusting. The Mavericks have punched them in the mouth twice in a row. Can the Thunder get back on track and start making the shots that got them here?

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