The Thunder and Mavericks conclude their regular season series tonight, which is unfortunate because we still have about two months of basketball to go. It would have been valuable to see these two teams closer to the playoffs to get a better sense as to how ready they are for the second season. Alas.
The Mavericks' season so far has been one of peaks and valleys. They started slow, needing some time to adjust to the post-championship letdown and to incorporate changes in their personnel. It seemed like the team was rounding into form in the month of February, with big wins coming over the Clippers, Nuggets, and Trail Blazers, but then the Mavs hit a skid to end the month, losing games to the Hornets and Nets. Needless to say, it is difficult to predict which Dallas team will show up tonight.
OKC won the last meeting between the two because a) Dirk Nowitzki was still not all-together healthy and had a horrible shooting game; and b) OKC realized that without Dirk, the Mavs really only had one player in Jason Terry could could reliably score points. Once the Thunder realized that, they were able to shift their defensive focus and limit the Mavs to only 34 second half points in securing the double-digit win.
This time out Dirk looks to be healthier and is regaining his shooting form (40 points vs the Jazz). Jason Terry is still a volume scorer who can carry his team for stretches, and with Jason Kidd finally healthy, the Mavs will try to move the ball around a lot to generate open jump shots. However, if you look at their statistical spread, they look awfully similar to the Thunder these days - two main scorers and not much else. If we assume for argument's sake that the combinations of Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook and Dirk Nowizki/Jason Terry cancel each other out, I think tonight's game is going to turn on which team can find a reliable 3rd scorer.
The Thunder have James Harden who, although still suffering from a wrist injury, is still good at getting to the rim and free throw line. The Mavs have Shawn Marion, who tends to play well against the Thunder but is limited offensively, and Lamar Odom, whose chronicles are well documented. The 3rd scorer is not going to find his own offense, so Durant in particular would do well to use his dribble-drive more cautiously to eliminate tunrovers (9 total in past two games). Instead, I'd like to see Durant play out of the post more, where he has a clear physical advantage on Marion, and look for his key 3rd scorer from that position. Daequan Cook, Royal Ivey, and Reggie Jackson, get those hands ready to receive the pass.
If the Thunder can avoid wasted possessions, find a 3rd scorer, and settle into the fact that this will be a 48 minute game, their talent should carry them through the end.
Prediction: Thunder 94, Mavericks 88