By John Carroll
The Dallas Mavericks and the Oklahoma City Thunder met during the regular season three times, with the Mavericks holding a 2-1 advantage. However I would not give much credence to those scores or statistics because of so many extenuating circumstances. Dirk Nowitzki missed two of the games due to injury. Caron Butler played in two of the three games and he is not available for this series. Jeff Green played in all three games before he was traded to the Celtics for Kendrick Perkins. In fact, Rick Carlisle did not even coach one of the games due to having knee surgery.
Every game and every series presents different challenges in the NBA playoffs. Each series is a new test. The Dallas Mavericks must adjust to playing a much different team in Oklahoma City than the Portland Trail Blazers or the LA Lakers. For the Thunder the challenges that Dallas presents are way different than in their last two series with Denver or Memphis. How quickly these teams adjust to the styles of each other could determine how this series plays out.
This will be an interesting series to watch for several reasons: 1) a veteran Dallas team with tons of postseason experience versus the athletic but inexperienced Thunder team 2) the scoring of Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki 3) the contrasting styles at the point guard position between Jason Kidd and Russell Westbrook 4) two high scoring offenses that put up a ton of points 5) and two of the most talented benches in the NBA.
Five Keys to this Series:
1. Point Guard Matchup: This will be one of the most interesting matchups of this series. You have a complete contrast in styles between Kidd and Westbrook. Kidd is the savvy, veteran floor leader who has a ton of experience playing in big playoff games. Kidd understands the mental aspects of running a club, makes great decisions with the ball and will kill opponents if they leave him open. He will not be able to defend Westbrook individually therefore the Mavericks will have to help and shrink the court to stop his penetration. Off the ball Kidd is still one of the best at anticipating for steals and deflections.
Westbrook is the new generation point guard in the NBA. He can score at will and break down the defense to create his own shot. Westbrook is learning how to be an elite-level point guard on the job. He is averaging 23.9 points per game and 7 assists in the playoffs. The only disturbing thing is his field goal percentage 40.7 percent. Westbrook must continue to grow with his decision-making and get the ball to Durant and James Harden in a timely fashion. When Westbrook plays as he did in the 7th game versus the Grizzlies (14 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds) the Thunder will have a chance to win every game. The Mavericks will have to slide DeShawn Stevenson over to help defend Westbrook and put Kidd on Thabo Sefolosha at times. Also look for Rick Carlisle to utilize J.J. Barea on Westbrook for him to use his quickness and keep Westbrook in front of him.
2. Dirk vs. Durant: Although Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant will not defend each other very much during this series they will have a profound affect on how the matchup of these two teams plays out. Durant is the NBA’s regular-season scoring champ having averaged 27.7 points per game. His scoring is up to 28.9 points per game during the playoffs and he is doing it at a very efficient clip, shooting 45.1 percent from the field. Durant is shooting 38 percent from behind the 3-point line and is the NBA’s playoff leader in free throw attempts and free throw makes.
Nowitzki has been playing with a sense of urgency in the playoffs. This will be his third appearance in the Western Conference Finals and after having his lowest scoring output of the regular season at 23 points per game he has been unguardable in the first two rounds of the playoffs. His numbers are off the charts. Nowitzki is scoring 26.5 ppg, grabbing 8.4 rebounds per game, shooting 60 percent from behind the 3-point arc and knocking down his free throws at a 90 percent clip.
Dirk will attack any post defenders that the Thunder throw at him. He will stretch the defense to the perimeter and knock down shots. It addition when he has a slower defender he will drive the ball to the rim and score or get fouled. The Thunder will be hard-pressed to find someone to slow him down. They will use several defenders but it requires someone with height, length and strength.
Nick Collison may be the person that gives the Thunder the best chance at slowing Dirk down. He has good lateral quickness, and the hustle and energy required to play Nowitzki for long periods. Serge Ibaka may start on Dirk but he is a much better off-the-ball than on-the-ball defender. He gives great help and is a tremendous shot-blocker but may not be best suited for defending Nowitzki.
The Mavericks will utilize Stevenson and Shawn Marion on Durant. Stevenson is a hard-nosed, physical player who will try to rattle and disrupt Durant’s offensive rhythm.
3. Bench Production: Some experts feel that the Dallas Mavericks have the best bench in the NBA. That may be true with Jason Terry, Peja Stojakovic, Barrea, and Brendan Haywood. But the Thunder bench is very strong and will have a big impact on this series. The Thunder will utilize James Harden, Nick Collison, Eric Maynor and Daequan Cook off their bench. Both Terry and Harden are the sparkplugs off each respective bench. Terry can light it up from 3 point land and is instant offense. Harden is a NBA starter on any other team and may be the X factor in this series for the Thunder. He is their third-leading scorer who can create his own shot and has the vision to create for others. Collison is a hustle, energy guy who can defend and rebound. For the Mavericks, Stojakovic will stretch the floor and if the Thunder help too much on Nowitzki he will make them pay. Barea is a tough, gritty little point guard who will be called on to contain Westbrook and put some pressure on the Thunder with his pick-and-roll scoring abilities.
4. Transition Defense: Transition defense will be a big key for both teams in this series. Both teams will be taxed in different ways on missed shots and turnovers. If the Mavs and Thunder do not take care of this phase of the game they will be hard pressed to win this series. The Mavericks must be very careful with the pace of their games with the Thunder. The Mavs may want to slow down the pace of the game because the Thunder are a terrific open-court team with their young legs, speed and athleticism. Westbrook is a one-man fast break. He can push the ball with blazing speed and if the Mavericks are not back in the paint loaded to the ball he will get to the rim with ease. In addition Sefolosha, Durant, Harden, Collison and Ibaka thrive in the open court. The Mavericks must sprint back, find their men and shut down the paint in order to stop the Thunder in transition.
Conversely, the Thunder will be taxed in defensive transition because of the 3-point shooting capabilities of the Mavericks. The Mavs shooters create a different type of problem in transition. If you do not sprint back and locate Terry, Nowitzki and Stojakovic in transition the Mavericks can destroy their opponents from the perimeter.
5. Rebounding: Rebounding will be a big key in this series. The Thunder were the 8th best rebounding team in the NBA regular season. Unfortunately their performance on the glass versus the Grizzlies was subpar. The Thunder only outrebounded the Grizzlies twice in their just-completed series. Dallas was ranked 15th in the NBA this season in rebounding. With Kendrick Perkins, Ibaka, Collison and Durant the Thunder have a major advantage on the glass. In addition Westbrook is a terror on the offensive glass, which was on full display versus the Grizzlies. He grabbed six offensive rebounds in the deciding 7th game. Dallas must get a big-time effort from Tyson Chandler, Nowitzki, Marion and Kidd to keep this series close in terms of rebounding statistics.
The Thunder will need to dominate this phase of the game to beat the Mavericks. If they allow a weak rebounding team like the Mavs to stay close with them on the glass they will have a difficult time winning this series.
Prediction: Mavericks in 6.