x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Thunder have plenty in reserve

Oklahoma City coach went with his gut, and it was telling him to stay with his backups and star Kevin Durant to close out Game 2 against Dallas. Good call - the Thunder head home with their play-off series even at one game each.

Scott Brooks, the Thunder coach, had a big decision to make. With Game 2 of the Western Conference final on the line, he either had to stick with a line-up of four reserves who were playing well or switch to the group he usually trusts late in the fourth quarter.

He bet on the back-ups and now the series, like the Eastern Conference finals, is essentially starting over. The scene shifts about 200 miles up Interstate 35 for Game 3 tonight, and Game 4 on Monday night.

And it's all thanks to Brooks' gutsy call.

James Harden, Eric Maynor, Nick Collison and Daequan Cook teamed with Kevin Durant to build a healthy lead late in the fourth quarter, then made it hold up for a 106-100 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night.

"We've always felt confident in the bench," Brooks said. "They really did a good job. But it's always a team effort when you win."

All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook sat alongside Brooks as Maynor guided the Thunder's offence down the stretch. Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins cheered on Collison as he tried to slow Dirk Nowitzki, who did not score in the third period.

"If you tell me they leave Westbrook out in the whole fourth quarter and we don't get stops to win, that would have been tough," Nowitzki said. "But you have to give Maynor credit ... Their reserves came out swinging and really took it to us."

Harden and Durant are part of Brooks's typical crew of closers. Sometimes Collison. So Maynor and Cook were the exceptions. But there was never really a chance - or a reason - for Brooks to make a change, and he ended up not making one until he had to when Collison fouled out with 37 seconds left. Brooks's only other move was taking out Cook for the last 13 seconds.

"You can't mess that chemistry up," Durant said.

By slowing Nowitzki and the Mavericks down the stretch, the Thunder reserves did something that Kobe Bryant and the Lakers could not.

Dallas erased a pair of fourth-quarter deficits during a sweep of the two-time reigning NBA champions the previous round. Those wins were part of a seven-game streak the Mavs had been riding. They also had been 6-0 at home this post-season. Rick Carlisle, the Mavericks coach, complained about his defence after Game 1, but it seemed like coach-speak, something to gripe about for the sake of griping. He's got their attention now, though, after seeing the Thunder make 56 per cent of their shots. Dallas came into this series not having allowed more than 97 points in any play-off game, and Oklahoma City has shattered that in both games.

"Scoring 100 points in a play-off game should be enough to win," Carlisle said. "Not if you're giving up 106, 112. Give them credit. They played an attacking, desperate game. Their bench was dominant when they played."

In Game 1, Dallas' reserves outscored Oklahoma City's 53-22. In Game 2, the Thunder won the battle of the back-ups 50-29.

Harden scored 23 points. In the fourth quarter, he made four of five shots, including a pair of three-pointers. Maynor finished with 13 points, Cook eight and Collison six. Durant still led the Thunder with 24 points. He was still spectacular at times, executing a first-quarter dunk that's worth seeing again and again, and a behind-the-back dribble to clear space for another key basket in the third quarter.

A return trip to Dallas for Game 5 on Wednesday night is now guaranteed but first the back-to-back matches in Oklahoma

"It should be fun, back at our place," Durant said.