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Streaking Thunder eye mischievous Mavericks

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Will Dirk play? His presence could make all the difference.

Right into the Singler zone!!!!
Right into the Singler zone!!!!
W. Bennett Berry

The Mavericks are right where we thought they should be. In the past four games, Dallas has beaten Boston, Chicago, and Minnesota. Not too shabby, but sandwiched in there is a 29 point loss to the Spurs. In other words, Dallas is a strong playoff team, but they don't come anywhere close to the dominance of the top two teams in the West. The Thunder, if they are to be considered in the same category as the Spurs and Warriors, must prove themselves against upper echelon teams like the Mavericks.

The Quality of the Mavs

In two games so far this season, the Thunder have been the better opponent. Oklahoma City eeked a narrow victory on November 22nd. This was despite the absence of Kevin Durant. And on January 13th, the Thunder won handily. This was because Rick Carlisle rested all of his starters. It's a mystery as to why Dallas decided to drop a game in the middle of the season. But it was slated to be the Mavs' third game in four nights, which should partially explain the decision.

Tonight may see the Mavs shorthanded yet again, as key cogs Dirk Nowitzki and Raymond Felton figure to be gameday decisions. Both Nowitzki and Felton sat out Wednesday night's win against the Timberwolves.

Guarding the arc

Nonetheless, the Thunder should prepare to defend the three point line. The Mavs have the sixth highest three point attempt rating in the NBA. Furthermore, Wesley Matthews hit four of his 10 attempts from beyond the arc against OKC on November 22nd. Generally speaking, the Thunder have done a decent job of guarding the three point line over their recent six game win streak. But those games were against mostly creampuff opponents. When it comes right down to it, the Thunder are still struggling to lock down the wings. When the ball moves from side to side or when the other team draws mismatches, it's easy for the Thunder's three point defense to fall flat.

To coach Donovan's credit, steps have been taken in recent games to bolster Oklahoma City's perimeter defense. Firstly, Anthony Morrow hasn't seen the floor in three games. Morrow may have been a dead eye shooter, but he's tied with Kanter for the worst defensive box plus/minus on the team. In Morrow's place has been Kyle Singler, whom has a mediocre defensive box plus/minus. Singler doesn't light the world on fire, but his additional height really helps the Thunder lock down the arc.

Additionally, veteran big man Nick Collison hasn't seen the floor in three of the past five games. Collison is certainly capable at what he does: defending, rebounding, and knowing where to be on the floor at all times. And there will be times where Collison is needed. But generally speaking, he's not equipped to guard the stretch four of today's NBA. The Thunder need more quickness from that position. No one has replaced Collison in particular, but the tighter 9 man rotation has seen the minutes go to Ibaka, Singler, and Durant. All are better options for guarding the three. (Kanter has seen minutes at power forward too, but that's rare.)

Beefs

Last time the two teams met, Russell Westbrook was ejected from the game, following two separate incidents with J.J. Barea. Both incidents played out in more or less the same way. Barea held Westbrook after the play was over, Westbrook overreacted, Westbrook was called for a technical. The first incident got way more out of hand though, as Villanueva tried to put his hand around Westbrook's neck. Villanueva was immediately ejected for that. Ibaka also got a technical for reacting to Villanueva's gesture. Barea was only called for a technical on the first foul, because the refs didn't see what he was doing the second time.

In any case, it will be interesting to see how this all plays out. Barea would likely get more of a role in the game if Felton is out, but may not see the floor at the same time as Westbrook. Villanueva would certainly see a lot of Westbrook if Dirk sat.

Behind the Mavs Success

If you want to figure out why the Mavs are doing so well, look no further than Dirk Nowitzki. Here's how Tim Cato put it over at Mavs Moneyball:

"Dirk's been wildly clutch his entire career and this season is nothing different, scoring 88 points in clutch situations -- points that come with the score within five points in the final five minutes of a game, as defined by NBA.com's stats page. Those 88 points are fifth-best in the NBA, behind Reggie Jackson, James Harden, Isaiah Thomas and Jimmy Butler but just ahead of LeBron James.

Even better, Dirk's plus-minus in crunch time leads the entirety of the NBA. That's right, Nowitzki is plus-78 when he steps on the floor when the game matters."

Also, the Mavericks seem to be favoring Felton over Chandler Parsons in clutch situations. This puts a lot more experience on the floor, and can only help increase Dirk's effectiveness.

How the game will go

If the Thunder are to win tonight, they'll need to try and force turnovers. Aside from three point shooting, the Mavs ability to control the ball is their greatest asset. However, when the Thunder beat the Mavericks on November 22nd, OKC forced Dallas into 17 turnovers. That's four more than Dallas' average of 13 on the season.

From a strategic point of view, it shouldn't be too hard for the Thunder to force turnovers. The Mavericks are constantly playing with two point guards, so it's viable to have Westbrook and Payne in the same lineup. Both Westbrook and Payne have been absolute hawks for the ball lately, as they've combined to average 5.2 steals over the past five games.

Expect the Thunder to do their usual defensive strategy of switching and hoping that it doesn't come back to bite them. The Mavericks will certainly find ways to exploit mismatches and score, at least some of the time. The pick and roll has given OKC some problems in the past, as well.

OKC's objective on offense will be clear: attack the basket. The Mavs have no true rim protector, and are helpless against the likes of Westbrook and Kanter. As long as those two get ample opportunities, the Thunder should have no problems.

A word on the KD-Parsons matchup

This is from my preview of last week's Mavs game. I tacked it on here because Parsons still hasn't really faced KD in a Mav uniform:

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....

In any case, I'm expecting a handy Thunder victory tonight. But the Mavericks always know how to keep it competitive, and anything could happen.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 110, Dallas Mavericks 100.

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

2015-16 NBA Season Game 45
@
32-12
(Won 6)

25-19
(Won 2)
January 22nd, 2016
The American Airlines Center, Dallas, Texas
7:30 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Fox Sports Network Southwest
Injury Report: Raymond Felton (Questionable), Dirk Nowitzki (Questionable)
This Season's Matchups: Nov 22 (W 117-114), Jan 13 (W 108-89)
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Deron Williams
Andre Roberson SG Wesley Matthews
Kevin Durant SF Chandler Parsons
Serge Ibaka PF Dirk Nowitzki
Steven Adams C Zaza Pachulia