The Oklahoma City Thunder did the expected and dispatched with the Dallas Mavericks in a fashion perhaps best described by Monty Python’s Black Knight:
The Mavs did their best impression of the Black Knight, who battled on and on against King Arthur, losing limb after limb until he was nothing but an armless, legless stump comically threatening to bite Arthur’s legs off. Veteran NBA Coach Rick Carlisle and the Mavs attempted to “muck it up” and get in the Thunder’s heads, but in the end, there was simply no substitute for talent.
The missing story here though — lost in all the technical fouls and flagrants and fines — was that the Thunder’s rookie coach, Billy Donovan, had just passed his first test as a coach in the NBA playoffs.
Carlisle — who was actually a former bench-mate of Donovan’s on the ‘87 Knicks — is well established as one of the best active coaches in the game. So, Donovan deserves a fair amount of credit for making quick work of a veteran team and veteran coach.
However, with Carlisle’s squad shorthanded and limping into the playoffs, it’s a little hard to call the series a big test of Donovan’s coaching ability. If we’re being honest, a cardboard cutout of Gene Hackman from Hoosiers could have coached this Thunder team past the first round.
That lopsidedness won’t be the case Saturday when Donovan faces Gregg Popovich — arguably the best coach in the NBA — and a stacked San Antonio Spurs team that won 67 regular-season games. If facing Carlisle and the Mavs in the first round was like hacking the Black Knight’s limbs off, getting past Pop and the Spurs is gonna be a bit more like crossing the Bridge of Death:
Against the Spurs, Donovan won’t have a sizeable talent gap to lean on. His team likely won’t be able to dominate the offensive glass for tons of easy second-chance points. He won’t be able to run so many isolation sets for Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. And he won’t have a full menu of individual matchups to exploit. No, Donovan is going to have his work cut out for him.
When the Thunder-Spurs series begins Saturday, Donovan will officially face his greatest test as a basketball coach. While the best two players in the series will be wearing blue, the Spurs are deeper and more disciplined. In terms of talent, it’s a wash. The series is going to come down to game plan, in-game adjustment, and execution — things that rest largely on Donovan.