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Durant returns for a new chapter of the Thunder-Mavericks war

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OKC's three point defense and bench scoring will be put to the test.

Oh hai Dirk.
Oh hai Dirk.
W. Bennett Berry

UPDATE: Dallas will rest Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons, Wes Matthews, and Deron Williams tonight. Disregard any following thoughts about this game being competitive.

There were some doubts about the Dallas Mavericks playoff chances heading into this season. Halfway through the season, it appears as if the Mavericks are a lock. Dallas hasn't had to deal with any injury concerns, so their newly constructed lineup has had time to gel. Perhaps the best example of what the Mavs can do came last night, when Dallas took LeBron's Cavaliers to overtime.

How have the Mavericks been so successful?

There's two factors that make the Mavs' offense truly deadly.

The first is their ridiculous three point shooting. The Mavericks take 28 threes per game, good for fourth in the league. This is despite the fact that the Mavericks' pace is right in the middle of the pack. In other words, Dallas likes to jack up lots of triples. The threes don't always go in, as the Mavs only hit them at a rate of 34%. But it's usually at such a high volume that poor shooting can be off-set. Individually, the Mavericks have a three point shooter at every position but center. And Nowitzki/Villanueva could be considered the best power forward shooting/rebounding combo in the league. But some Maverick regulars have struggled to shoot the ball. Raymond Felton, Chandler Parsons, Devin Harris, and Charlie Villanueva are all shooting under 35% while taking at least two threes per game. Getting those players going can be a key to any Maverick victory.

The other factor that fuels the Maverick offense is their excellent ball control. The Mavericks have the fourt lowest turnover percentage in the NBA. Dallas is loaded with veterans who have years of NBA experience under their belts, and they know how to run an offense. There's only one rotation player under the age of 27, backup forward Dwight Powell. In fact, there are only two other Mav rotation players under the age of 31 (Matthews and Parsons). The Mavericks also basically have four point guards on their roster. Deron Williams and Raymond Felton are the "official" choices, but both J.J. Barea and Devin Harris are natural point guards as well.

Defensively, the Mavericks succeed because they stick to shooters and avoid fouling in the paint. The Mavs have the fifth lowest defensive free throw rate in the NBA, meaning that Maverick opponents don't get to the line a lot. As such, Maverick opponents shoot a very high percentage inside the arc (9th highest in the league). Consequently, the Mavericks are actually a bit above average when it comes to defending the three. Maverick opponents shoot the 18th best percentage from that range.

Thunder strategy

Because the Mavericks are a team that struggles to defend the paint so much, it only makes sense to attack. Last time the Thunder met the Mavericks, Kevin Durant was injured, and Russell Westbrook had to shoulder the bulk of the offensive load. Westbrook shot 12 of 22 in that Thunder victory. And eight of those makes came from inside the paint.

Kevin Durant was injured during the only Thunder-Mavericks matchup this season, and only played in one matchup against the Mavs last season. That singular matchup saw Durant shoot 4 of 14, but Durant exited the game with a season-ending foot injury in the fourth. Before that, to get a barometer on KD's performance, you'd have to go back to Durant's matchups with Parsons in the 13-14 season. Those were Thunder-Rockets games, and Kevin Durant was very hit and miss. Two games saw Durant shoot under 40%, another two saw him shoot over 50%. In all games KD was able to get his due though as he scored 28, 33, 36, and 42 points. On the other end, Parsons really struggled. So I'm hoping KD will be able to recreate that same result tonight, despite some tiredness showing last night against the Wolves.

Regardless of how KD and Westbrook perform though, this game will be another litmus test to determine whether the Thunder's bench can score, and whether the Thunder can defend the three point line. Last time, the Thunder were able to pull through on some strong performances from Dion Waiters, Enes Kanter, and Anthony Morrow. This time, the Thunder will either need to rely on those guys again, or figure out how to shut down the three point line. Considering that the Mavericks hit five fourth quarter threes last time, I'm banking on the Thunder offense.

It's also important to take a look at what the Mavericks have done lately. Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons are the hot hands right now. Dirk is averaging 22.6 points per game over his past 5, despite averaging 17.7 PPG on the year. Parsons is comparatively hotter, averaging 14.6 PPG over his last five, compared to a season average of 9.9 PPG. The interesting thing about Parsons' run is that his success came mainly from two. Parsons averaged a mere 28% from three during that five game spurt. So it will be in the Thunder's best interest to try to protect the basket against Parsons, and let Serge Ibaka go to work on Dirk.

How the game will go

I don't think there's any way either of these teams can stop each other from scoring at least 100, possibly 110. There's simply too many weapons on the floor, on both sides. The Thunder are the slightly better team, and are really good at defending the two. So the Mavs will live and die by the three and free throw line all game.

We should see a lot of interesting lineup chess between Rick Carlisle and Billy Donovan. The small stature of the Maverick guards will surely tempt Donovan to give excess minutes to big offensive weapons like Payne and Morrow. But can the Thunder really give up that much on the perimeter? Also, Nick Collison will likely get time over Kyle Singler, as he simply matches up with Villanueva and Dirk better.

There are also a lot of eyes on Dion Waiters night now. Waiters has scored in double-digits only twice in the past 12 games, and is shooting 35% from the floor during that stretch. (From three, Dion is 24% during the past 12 games.) Tonight, a night where Waiters will regularly have the size advantage over his matchup, should be an ideal opportunity for him to score.

Anyway, OKC has better closers than Dallas does, and the Mavericks won't kill the Thunder on offensive rebounds. So despite Dallas' three point madness, I think the Thunder should be able to get a somewhat comfortable victory tonight.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 119, Dallas Mavericks 110.

What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2015-16 NBA Season Game 40
@
22-17
(Lost 1)

27-12
(Won 1)
January 13th, 2016
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Fox Sports Network Southwest
Injury Report: A clean bill of health!
This Season's Matchups: Nov 22 (W 117-114)
Probable Starters
Deron Williams PG Russell Westbrook
Wesley Matthews SG Andre Roberson
Chandler Parsons SF Kevin Durant
Dirk Nowitzki PF Serge Ibaka
Zaza Pachulia C Steven Adams