After an epic seven game series, the Thunder are finally ready to prove themselves as the best team in the Western Conference. But this time, the opponent won't be a team that just traded Carmelo Anthony, or a bunch of underdogs who lost Rudy Gay to injury. This time the Thunder will face perennial championship challengers in the Dallas Mavericks.
Thunder-Mavericks, while never being a main rivalry, has always been a source of exciting games for the Thunder. I'm sure we all remember how the Thunder beat the Mavericks without Kevin Durant or Jeff Green in the spring of our first dismal season, and how the Thunder lost by one on their home floor on January 15th, 2010. This season, the games have been nothing short of intense and furious. On December 27th, the Mavericks were able to defeat the Thunder in Oklahoma City, and some weren't too happy about the attitude they showed. But, on January 6th, the Thunder were able to bounce back from the loss, grabbing and keeping the lead through the fourth quarter while in Dallas.
Interestingly, the Mavericks haven't played the current incarnation of the Thunder. It's questionable how much of a difference it will make, especially given Dirk's ability to score from the perimeter, which Ibaka isn't the greatest at stopping. The Mavericks have acquired Corey Brewer since the two teams last met, but he doesn't play a whole bunch, so it won't have great effect.
Below: Matchups, Keys to Winning the Series, Prediction!
Yet again, Sam Presti shows his genius. Kendrick Perkins may not be the most skilled player in the world, but he's the perfect guy to stop a center like Tyson Chandler, however ineffective he may have been against Marc Gasol. Chandler has scored over 14 points twice on the Thunder this season, and he was a big defensive contributor in the other game he played on December 27th. When Perkins and Chandler last met on February 4th, they were both roughly of equal caliber, both going double digits in points and rebounds. More promising though was their meeting in 2009, where Perk limited Chandler to 5 Points and 5 Rebounds, while scoring 21 Points himself. Judging on past results, where Chandler ends up offensively will have a large impact on the game, and there are few men I'd rather have than Perkins defending him. Advantage: Tie.
Dirk is a matchup nightmare. There's no way that Ibaka will be able to limit him to anything less than 20 in this entire series. That being said, if you can limit Dirk, you're nearly guaranteed victory. Serge shouldn't have much trouble scoring against him, but given that Dirk likes to score 25-30 a game, this matchup is an easy victory for the Mavericks.
Small Forward: Shawn Marion vs. Kevin Durant
Shawn Marion is extremely good at backdoor cuts, and he makes a jumpshot once in a while. Other than that, he's not much of a threat. He'll have one or two good games over the course of this series, but what he does isn't even comparable to what Durant does. Durant has scored at or over his season average in every outing against the Mavs, so Marion won't be much of a defensive problem, either. Advantage: Mavs.
Defensive specialist vs. defensive specialist. I wouldn't be surprised to see Stevenson slide up to SF or down to PG on defense while Thabo is on the floor. This matchup won't have much effect on the final outcome, but while Thabo only really scores on the break nowadays, Stevenson is a solid three point shooter, and will get at least three looks a game. Advantage: Mavs.
I'd pay good money to put Jason Kidd in a anti-aging machine, so I could see both of these guys go at it in their prime. Nonetheless, we'll have to settle for this matchup. In his old age, Kidd is less of a scorer and more of a facilitator. He'll still take roughly ten shots a game, but he likes to stay out on the perimeter, and will only go to the basket a couple of times a game. His main purpose is to dish around 10 assists a game while minimizing turnovers. Needless to say, this is the exact opposite of Russell Westbrook, who turns it over like nobodies business and constantly goes to the hole. It will be interesting to see the contrast in styles, but it should shake out about evenly.
Brandan Haywood is mainly a big body to put on the floor while Chandler or Nowitski need rest. Then again, so is Nazr Mohammed. Those two will mostly be looking for garbage buckets and providing help defense in the paint. The Thunder get the advantage here because Nick Collison provides extra rest for the Thunder bigs, and because he provides so many dimensions to the game, like knowing where to be on offense and taking charges in the paint.
Jason Terry isn't the player he once was, but he still functions as the main scorer off of the bench for the Mavericks,. much as James Harden does for the Thunder. Both will have their successes and failures, but the more Harden keeps Terry out on the perimeter, the better. Stojakovic and Cook also serve the same role, but Stojakovic is older and used to be a great scorer, so he get the slight edge.
Point Guards: J.J. Barea vs. Eric Maynor
Both the Thunder and Mavericks have backup point guards that offset their starters. Barea is a score-first PG that can get the Mavericks out of some sticky situations late in games when the Mavericks are in a offensive wasteland. Maynor is more of a pass-first PG who sometimes finds his offensive flow. Maynor has been focusing on his threes lately, and he can be a nice replacement for Westbrook.
Brewer will see limited action, but I wouldn't expect anybody else to see any time except in the case of a blowout or an injury. Should they need to play, however, the Thunder get the slight advantage because their players have more playoff experience.
Scott Brooks has set roles for his team. Rick Carlisle, on the other hand, is willing to switch up who gets plays drawn for them, should somebody have a better than average game. The Mavs have older players, so they're much more prone to having off and on nights. This better suits Carlisle's strategy. It will provide an interesting contrast to last series, where the Thunder were the team with more changes in strategy, and the Grizzlies stayed the same.
The Mavericks may or may not get Caron Butler back later in the series. He would provide a lot more on offense, and could turn the tide of the series. Kendrick Perkins is still playing on bad knees, but he's been doing that all season. The Mavs have home court advantage, so the Thunder will need to steal one in Dallas.
Keys to winning the series:
1. Shut down Dirk. He's a huge part of their offense, and sometimes a good option in crunch time. I wouldn't have any problem with frequent double teams on him.
2. Keep the paint locked down. A lot of Mavs players are jumpshot-happy, and if the Thunder can keep the Mavs from going into the paint, their offense could stagnate quickly.
3. Identify the Mavericks' X-Factor, and shut him down. The Mavericks are reliant on one of their old players to score when they're hot, and they can be huge boons during times of crisis. If the Thunder can stop them from going on a run early, the Mavericks could be easily crippled.
4. Remember to share the ball on offense. In the last series, when the Thunder relied only on Westbrook and Durant, the offense became predictable. As long as they rely on another player every third play, they should be fine.
5. Beware the fourth quarter collapse. If the offense goes sour when you need it most, get fouled and milk the clock. The last thing Thunder fans want to see is a crucial game lost slowly and painfully.
Game 1 (Dallas): Oklahoma City 107, Dallas 99
Game 2 (Dallas): Dallas 112, Oklahoma City 92
Game 3 (OKC): Dallas 97, Oklahoma City 93
Game 4 (OKC): Oklahoma City 111, Dallas 109
Game 5 (Dallas): Dallas 100, Oklahoma City 99
Game 6 (OKC): Oklahoma City 98, Dallas 79
Game 7 (Dallas): Oklahoma City 106, Dallas 105
Final Prediction: The Oklahoma City Thunder Win in 7 Games.
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