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Oklahoma City Thunder vs Dallas Mavericks: 2011 Conference Finals Game 1; The Next Big Test Awaits Down I-35

Records: The Dallas Mavericks (57-25) vs The Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27)

Series: Game 1, Game 2, Game 3 (Dallas won regular season 2-1)

Time: 8:00 PM Central Daylight Time

Place: American Airlines Center, Dallas, TX


Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1), ESPN 103.3 KESN-FM

Enemy Blog(s): Mavs Moneyball, The Two Man Game

The image that I have in my mind now is of the rapscallion kids, much like the Li'l Rascals, ambling up to an old farmhouse in the middle of Texas. The kids are dusty, tired, and hungry, but undeterred. They begin to step up onto the steps of the farmhouse when they realize that there are two grizzled veterans sitting there in rocking chairs, rocking back and forth. One is bald, the other one sporting a shaggy mane.

"It's about time," the bald one says.

"You kids ready to go?" says the other one, standing up to reveal ridiculous upside.

"Yeah, they're ready as they're gonna be." says the first. "All right, let's get to it."

Game One of any playoff series is likely to be uneven, as both teams will be looking for ways to go about their respective schemes. I honestly expect the Thunder to jump out early in a way similar to what the Grizzlies did to the Thunder in the last round. The Grizz were coming off of a huge first round upset (8 over 1) and had barely two days' rest to get ready for OKC. Never the less, Memphis jumped on OKC early and often, showing more energy and focus than the home team. It set the table for what would prove to be a marvelous playoff series. I'm not arguing that the Thunder can win the game in this way (in part because of how well the Mavs play down the stretch) but that to see something similar would not be without precedent. Also, I'm sure that Thunder, two days removed from a brutal defensive series, will find the Dallas defense a breath of fresh air.

As for winning:

1. Find the shooters.

If you watched any of the Game Four annihilation of the Lakers at the hands of the Mavericks, you know that this team has a number of outside shooters who can find the 3-point groove. The reason why they found themselves open so often is because Dallas averages almost 24 assists per game (2nd in league) and they know how to rotate the ball to find the sweet spots for their shooters. If you take a look at their shooting analysis, you can see that the Mavs thrive in getting their shooters open in the deep corners for 3-pointers. Getting those shooters into the deep corners serves a dual purpose, especially for the Mavs - 1) it is a high percentage shot for them; and 2) it's a remote part of the court so that, if the shot doesn't come, two quick passes can swing the ball to the opposite side of the court for an open jumper. The deep corner shot can suck the defense in, so the Thunder have to be ready for both the close-out on the shot as well as the rotation of the ball back to the weak side of the court.

2. Control Tyson Chandler.

The Mavs were able to compete in and win two out of three regular season games because the Thunder had nobody with which to body up against Tyson Chandler to battle for rebounds. Chandler overwhelmed Nenad Krstic, Jeff Green, and Kevin Durant and it was a big reason why the Thunder had such a hard time closing out the Mavs.

To point out the obvious - none of those three regular season games featured Kendrick Perkins or the new-look Thunder. Since that point the Thunder have made tremendous strides in both rebounding and defense. OKC was able to control the boards throughout the first round and then battled the Grizzlies big men well on the boards. Heading into a Dallas series, the Thunder have personnel that is better suited to deal with Chandler.

Even so, Chandler represents Dallas' best effort at controlling the game when their shots aren't falling. He brings a high level of energy that you rarely see from a 10 year veteran, but Chandler brings that energy every night. He will need to be accounted for if the Thunder are to capitalize on forcing Dallas to miss shots.

3. Manufacture points in the 4th.

If you had the opportunity to watch any of the Dallas-Lakers series, one thing that you were treated to was some of the best 4th quarter execution that I've ever seen. Particularly in games 1&3, Dallas was looking at deficits in the 4th quarter. However, instead of using the Grizzlies way of getting back into it via shut-down defense and pressure, the Mavs did it with remarkable efficiency and precision. Using Dirk as the point of attack out of the post, they ran through seven or eight plays in a row where every single time they got a wide open basket or a trip to the free throw line. It was a remarkable display of offensive discipline where every man was completely tuned in to doing his job for the team and doing it well.

In other words, Dallas' 4th quarter execution is the exact opposite of the Thunder's late-game production. OKC has been hounded by bad execution throughout the playoffs and have frequently let teams back into a game that the Thunder once controlled (Game 3 of round 2 is the most notable example). When the pressure builds, the offense stops. I think a big part of it is that the team typically goes to a stall offense where they're trying to bleed the clock. If this were college hoops, that would be great. However, with only a 24 second shot clock and typically a quarter of that used just to advance the basketball, there really isn't any time to dither. They need to get into their offensive sets quicker so that there's more than one option available. Or even one option besides: "heave contested 3-pointer at shot-clock buzzer."

The Thunder must figure out how to generate better offense in the 4th quarter, because as we have seen by them as well as all of Dallas' foes, it is in these late moments where Dallas is most likely to win a game and the Thunder, to lose.

Prediction: Thunder 110, Mavericks 105