OKLAHOMA CITY — The Dallas Mavericks celebrated the New Year in the most cliché of ways. They made sure the ball dropped. And dropped. And dropped.
They did so to an absurd degree. They swished. They sprinkled. They rolled the rock around the rim. Mavs rookie Dennis Smith Jr. took the trend to ludicrous degrees, smashing a 3-pointer off the backboard and in with 1:17 remaining to give his team a 111-108 lead.
“I thought we actually defended that one well,” Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan said.
It was one of the not many baskets for which such an evaluation was true. The Thunder wouldn’t regain an advantage after the Smith banker, despite Russell Westbrook’s best efforts.
Westbrook missed a couple of 3-pointers during the final 12 seconds, and Dallas swerved to a 116-113 victory in a game it made 15 of 34 triples.
“It’s real frustrating, especially because we’ve came a long ways offensively, and our defense has been superior all season. It’s been elite,” Paul George said. “And for us to give up 100-plus, 110-plus on our floor, uncharacteristic for sure.”
It wasn’t just the 3s. Dallas found the net with just about every type of shot it tried Sunday. The Thunder, who own one of the NBA’s stingiest defenses, were missing reigning All-Defensive Second Team member Andre Roberson. The Mavs took advantage of that and more.
They sank 52 percent of their shots. They got to the middle of the floor well. It worked from the beginning. They dropped 35 during the first quarter, making it three straight games that the Thunder have allowed 35-plus points in the first. They gave up 38 to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday and 38 to the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, odd given how well they defended during the final three quarters on both of those nights.
“We’ve got to fine tune it. We’ve been stressing offense so much, defensively we slipped,” George said.
Donovan and Thunder players consistently used the same term after the game: “slippage.” They didn’t want to continue to see a defense that still ranks fifth in points allowed per possession fall.
“We are one of the top defensive teams in the NBA,” Carmelo Anthony said. “We want to keep that level.”
The Thunder got creative against the Mavs’ 3-point hunting Sunday. Dallas was getting to the middle of the floor consistently, finishing around the rim or finding triples from there as Westbrook chased ball-handlers. It’s how the Mavericks complemented their 45 points from behind the arc with 46 in the paint and nine on free throws.
Oklahoma City eventually pulled center Steven Adams late, going with a small lineup that could switch everything against Dallas' even smaller five. It didn't quite work.
The Mavs are 12 games below .500. They've now beaten the Thunder twice, this time because of a dominant offensive performance from start to finish.
“I’m concerned about that…We’re going to need to get back to our identity, which has been really an elite defensive team for really most of the year,” Donovan said. “And you can see, as games have gone on here the last week or so, there’s been slippage. We’ve got to get back to that.”
The Thunder are far from dire trouble. The offense ran smoothly once again with Westbrook, who went for 38 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists, leading the way. The big three came ever so close to each making at least half their shots for the third straight game that all three played. (George missed Friday’s game because of a sore left knee.)
Westbrook sank 17 of 28. George had 25 points on 6 of 12 shooting, though he received only two looks during the second half. Anthony went for 21 on 7 of 15. It's a change from the early-season production.
“The offense has come a long way. That’s something I think that we figured out, something we will continue to work on,” Anthony said. “Even though our offense is moving in the right direction, we can’t allow our defense to slip.”
The Thunder now have two consecutive off days ahead for the first time since the end of November. And Donovan says the schedule-induced lack of practice time lately could be a reason for the inconsistent defense to begin games.
The Thunder will get their rest before a favorable upcoming road trip. None of the L.A. Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers or Phoenix Suns is near .500.
Then again, neither were the Mavericks, who closed 2017 with a victory to bring OKC to the most appropriate record to wrap up the year: 20-17.
“I’m encouraged because we had a hard time for the first 25 games or so, 30 games, scoring over 100 points,” Donovan said. “We’re figuring it out on offense…But I feel like defensively, we’ve gotta get back to that being our staple and continue to grow offensively.”
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.