I. Intro: No. 4 seed Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27) vs. No. 3 seed Dallas Mavericks (57-25)The top two seeds in the Western Conference -- the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers -- were dismissed from the playoffs early this year, setting up an entertaining I-35 duel between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks. The two teams present obvious contrasts in age. In a Hoopism.com analysis run back in January, Dallas was the league's oldest team if you weighted by minutes while Oklahoma City was the league's youngest.
In this case, age ain't nothing but a number. Both the Mavericks and the Thunder enter the Western Conference finals playing exceptional basketball. Dallas has faced stiffer tests, dispatching the Portland Trail Blazers in six games and then sweeping the defending champs, the Lakers, in the second round. The Thunder finds itself here after dispatching the Denver Nuggets in five games and then surviving the playoffs' only seven-game series against the Memphis Grizzlies. Dallas will have nine days of rest in advance of Tuesday night's Game 1; Oklahoma City will have just Monday to get itself together.
II. What Happened: A look at the season series
The Mavericks won the season series, 2-1, with the road team winning every game. It's worth noting that All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki did not play in Oklahoma City's win.
Even more importantly, the most recent game in the series took place on Jan. 6, more than four months ago. The key trade deadline move that landed center Kendrick Perkins in Oklahoma City hadn't yet been completed. Peja Stojakovic, a key playoff performer off of Dallas' bench, also hadn't yet been acquired.
Every team takes on a new identity in the playoffs, and both of these teams have taken on better identities. From an efficiency standpoint, Dallas was ranked No. 8 on offense and No. 7 on defense in the regular season. In the postseason, those numbers have improved to No. 1 on offense and No. 6 on defense. Oklahoma City, similarly, was ranked No. 4 on offense and No. 13 on defense during the regular season. Those numbers have improved to No. 2 on offense and No. 3 on defense.
III. Secret of the Series: Composure
After such a back-and-forth, emotionally-challenging series against the Grizzlies, the Thunder not only need to pull things together, they need to take it to a new level. The first order is improved consistency on offense, which is funny considering that they have the second best offensive efficiency in the playoffs. The issue is that the production has come in fits and spurts, unstoppable one possession, lost the next. Long stretches without generating quality scoring opportunities against the Mavericks doomed both the Blazers and the Lakers and they will be critical for the Thunder as well.
Dallas, meanwhile, will head into a hostile environment in Games 3, 4 and 6. They've experienced that in Portland but the Blazers do not have players adept at getting to the free throw line like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. How Dallas reacts and responds to the officiating, especially on the road, will be crucial.
IV. The Line-Item Veto: Who wins each match-up?
PG: Russell Westbrook is the most polarizing player in this year's postseason, his scoring explosions and unmatched athleticism are winning him many supporters, while his play-calling and turnovers have brought out the detractors. To be sure, Dallas has not faced a point guard like him yet in these playoffs. Portland's Andre Miller is a traditional, on-the-ground play-maker. Ditto for Derek Fisher and Steve Blake. Westbrook's physical tools will surely cause problems for Dallas' backcourt, but we shouldn't overlook how well Jason Kidd has played recently. He's captained Dallas' ship well, setting up the constant five-man attack and stepping in to knock down shots when needed. Westbrook wins the postseason numbers game by a country mile -- putting up 23.9 points and 7.0 assists to Kidd's 10.1 points and 7.2 assists -- but this match-up is much closer than that given the nature of Dallas' team-based attack. Advantage: Thunder.
SG: This is a (relatively) weak starting position for both teams. The Mavericks have thrown out DeShawn Stevenson and saved Jason Terry for the bench while the Thunder use Thabo Sefalosha early and then often turn to James Harden. Terry demonstrated that he still has plenty of jet fuel left when he hit nine three-pointers in one game to eliminate the Lakers. Harden has stepped up in somewhat surprising fashion, averaging 12.4 points and serving as a primary distributor at times, but Terry is clearly the best player in this group. His shot has been on -- to the tune of 52.$% shooting in the playoffs -- and his chemistry with Nowitzki is unmatched. Advantage: Mavericks.
SF: Oklahoma City's clearest match-up advantage comes in the form of the NBA's 22-year-old scoring leader Kevin Durant, who has simply been unstoppable at times during the postseason run. While Dallas doesn't have a great individual match-up to slow him down -- Shawn Marion is too short and none of their post players are athletic or versatile enough to step out -- the Mavericks succeeded in containing all sorts of potent offensive threats, including Gerald Wallace, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. None of those has Durant's range but Dallas will rely on its principles -- Tyson Chandler holding down the paint, a touch of zone, hard closeouts on shooters, a good understanding of who to leave open -- to try to limit Durant's game-changing impact. While Marion is no Durant, he's no slouch. He's solidly put up 9.7 points and 6.4 rebounds, proving to be a capable scoring option when teams overload on Nowitzki or Terry. Advantage: Thunder.
PF: Dirk Nowitzki is playing arguably the best basketball of anyone in the world right now, putting up 26.5 points and 8.4 rebounds so far in the playoffs. With his teammates shooting so well, he hasn't had to do it alone and, to his credit, he's recognized that brilliantly. Unlike so many other superstars, Nowitzki rarely finds himself grinding the overall offensive flow to a halt. His points come in rhythm and, late in the game, often at the free throw line, so his efficiency always remains high. The Thunder will likely throw everyone -- Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, etc. -- they've got at him, just like the Blazers and Lakers did, and it won't much matter. Nowitzki is getting his. Ibaka, a tremendous shot-blocker, will likely have some of his value mitigated in this series due to the perimeter nature of Dallas' attack. Advantage: Mavericks.
C: During the regular season match-ups, Mavericks center averaged 15.3 rebounds per game against the Thunder. Of course, that was before Kendrick Perkins arrived to supplement Oklahoma City's frontline. Chandler is the unsung hero of this Dallas run, making Nowitzki's life easier, cleaning the glass like crazy and finishing at the rim when necessary. He hasn't been bothered by the girth of Andrew Bynum nor the length of Marcus Camby. Perkins' rebounding and toughness were crucial in neutralizing Memphis' inside advantages but he will have his hands full with Chandler. The great equalizer could be foul trouble, as Chandler will need to avoid cheap ones, especially against Westbrook's relentless attacks. Advantage: Mavericks.
Bench: Between the shooting of Terry and Stojakovic and the incisive drives of J.J. Barea, Dallas' bench has been essentially unstoppable so far in the playoffs. There's not a great defender among them but it hasn't mattered, as they've regularly caught fire and outscored their counterparts, often by a factor of 2-1. Oklahoma City brings Harden and Collison to the table, but this could easily be the series in which Daequon Cook and Eric Maynor are exposed as being in over their heads. Advantage: Mavericks.
Coach: Rick Carlisle has been sensational, carrying his team through a demoralizing collapse against the Blazers in Game 4 and pushing all the right buttons to frustrate the Lakers. Scott Brooks, meanwhile, has been the focus of a lot of ire for his lack of late-game creativity on offense. Far too often, Westbrook and Durant (especially Westbrook) would be operating one-on-one with no real direction. That works against the likes of the Grizzlies, but not against a two-way machine like the Mavericks. Carlisle had loads more experience and the full faith of his veteran team. The Thunder, as good as they are, often look like they're still working out the kinks on the fly. Advantage Mavericks.
V. ConclusionSo far during these playoffs, no one has better or more consistently than the Mavericks. Dallas has home court advantage, a ton of time to rest heading into Game 1 and the best performer in this year's postseason in Nowitzki. They have the best bench, a more-than-capable center and are playing with the urgency that comes with this possibly being the group's last stand. The Thunder bring two of the most dynamic young players to the game, a solid rotation and. more than anything, a degree of athleticism that Dallas hasn't yet seen. Dallas has answered tough tests already and they should be up to this challenge. Mavericks in six.