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NBA Playoff Series Preview: Thunder must sweep Mavs to remain competitive

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A look back at the regular season series, and potential playoff X-Factors.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder are finally back together as a stable unit, and have a strong scorer off the bench. Durant and Westbrook finished the season virtually injury-free, and Enes Kanter emerged as one of the league's best sixth men. But some historically great performances from the top two seeds has left Thunder fans in doubt. The Golden State Warriors finished the season with the best record in NBA history, and won the championship last year. The San Antonio Spurs have added two of the league's top tier power forwards, and are stocked with championship-winning veterans. But the Oklahoma City Thunder still have two of the league's top five players, and that's what makes them a threat to go deep in this year's playoffs.

Before the Thunder can look ahead, they must look to the present. The Dallas Mavericks are their first round opponent, and have been a formidable foe in previous years. Back during the 2011 Western Conference finals, Dirk's Mavericks beat the Thunder in 5 games. J.J. Barea was a serious offensive force in those games. And Back in 2012, the Thunder swept the Mavericks in the first round enroute to the finals. Nevertheless, a couple of games were tightly contested, and the Mavericks could have easily extended the series.

This year, the Thunder have made a clean sweep of the Mavericks in four games. Let's take a look at how those went, and what those results mean to each team as it pertains to this playoff series.

The regular season games, and what they mean for the playoffs

November 22nd, W 117-114

In what was perhaps the most satisfying win of the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have overcome the rival Dallas Mavericks, 117-114. The Mavericks came into tonight riding a 6 game win streak, and had the game tied with 1:15 to go. But Russell Westbrook was the hero for the Thunder, scoring twice in the final 62 seconds of the game. It was a fitting end to an extremely efficient night from Westbrook. 54% from the field, 31 points, 11 assists, and 5 steals are definitely stats worth writing home about. Westbrook did have 7 turnovers as well, but meh.

Westbrook wasn't the only positive for the Thunder tonight, though. Serge Ibaka was finally able to find his groove, scoring 16 points on 53% shooting. Dion Waiters was right behind him, contributing 14 points on 41% shooting. Most importantly, both Waiters and Ibaka were able to contribute to the effort down the stretch. It doesn't stop there though, because the Thunder's bench had an extremely good night offensively as well. Morrow, Kanter, and Collison all hit double digits and were over 50% from the floor. In general, it was just a great night for sharing the ball on offense, as the Thunder assisted 25 times on 47 makes.

The Mavericks had a real team effort on their end, with all five of their starters finishing the game in double digits. Deron Williams led the way with 20 points and 2 of 2 shooting from three. Wes Matthews was right behind Williams, scoring 18 and shooting 4 of 10 from three himself. As a team, the Thunder allowed the Mavericks to shoot 53% from three, despite Dallas coming into the game shooting 32% on average.

Still, it was a good defensive effort from the Thunder. OKC was able to force Dallas into 17 turnovers, four over their average of 13. The Thunder were also able to win the offensive rebounding battle, 14-9. Lastly, the Thunder were able to capitalize on their opportunities more, scoring 21 fast break points and 17 second chance points. By contrast, the Mavs had 14 fast break points and 9 second chance points.

This game seems like a pretty typical blueprint for what the Thunder were trying to fix earlier in the season. The team was basically a glass cannon. There was enough offensive talent to keep OKC competitive, but the defense had no teeth. OKC's defense couldn't force enough turnovers to really be effective in that area.  The defensive rebounding was good, but because OKC tried to force turnovers, their shot defense was terrible.

Since then, the Thunder have gotten much better about protecting the rim. Steven Adams has explicitly said that the Thunder's big men sit farther back in the pick and roll. When Adams is in the game, the Thunder's defense is really hard to break on a consistent basis. The only real kryptonite for that is foul trouble, or the point where Enes Kanter enters the game.

The secondary priorities for the Thunder defense are applying pressure around screens and defending the three point line. These can fall by the wayside in the name of protecting the basket. Generally, mid-range twos won't be guarded by the Thunder at all, unless a player is particularly good at them.

In any case, I believe the Thunder's increased ability to protect the rim will prevent them from having to play close games of this nature. If OKC's offense clicks on the level that it did that night, it should be an easy victory every time.

January 13th, W 108-89

The Dallas Mavericks sat all five of their starters. As such, the fully stacked Oklahoma City Thunder were able to smash the Mavs tonight, 108-89. Russell Westbrook had the most interesting game, as he was ejected in the second quarter following a pair of scuffles with J.J. Barea. Westbrook would finish the night with 0 points, three missed shots, four missed free throws, 8 assists, and only 1 turnover. Not a bad night, but only the second time in Westbrook's career that he would finish a game with 0 points. Nevertheless, Westbrook was definitely key for getting the Thunder going in transition early, as well as working within the pick and roll game a bit.

Nevertheless, it's Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka whom were able to step up in Westbrook's absence. After Ibaka was hit with a technical foul of his own during one of the Westbrook scuffles, he went on a mini 5 point run. Then Kevin Durant started to heat up in transition, hitting consecutive threes and then getting his own steal and dunk. It was all part of a 13-2 Thunder run that put OKC up by 25.

This game was a farce, and we definitely won't see anything like it in the post-season. Coach Carlisle sat his players because they were on the second night of a back-to-back, and on the road. Given that 2 more wins could have gotten Dallas to the five seed, I'm wondering if Carlisle regrets sitting his players.

Still, it's nice to know that KD can still dominate when Westbrook's gone.

January 22nd, W 109-106

The victory really came down to the skills of Kevin Durant, who scored the Thunder's last points at around the 54 second mark. It was an off the dribble shot around an Ibaka pick, and went down as smooth as ever. Additionally, KD played a major defensive role late, hustling to guard a Dirk three and a Wes Matthews three in the final 90 seconds. This was encouraging after KD gave up some crucial points to Dirk and Chandler Parsons in the late second quarter.

Durant was hitting incredibly tough shots all night. We're talking deep threes. Threes through two defenders. Multiple dirk legs. Running off the pick to score at the rim. Playing the open man when Westbrook is double-teamed. Shooting runners in space around screens. The sick assists were there too. Durant drove and found Kanter on three separate occasions, wide open for shots. Durant even got assists in to Ibaka at the basket, and Singler and Waiters at the three point line. Just the complete package from Durant tonight, despite a couple of minor bumps along the road.

The Mavericks relied heavily on Chandler Parsons and Deron Williams. Both likely because they were initially guarded by KD and Westbrook. But it was a sly move by Coach Donovan to match up Singler with Parsons in the second half, to give KD a defensive break. It was clear that, as a team, the Mavericks weren't expecting the Thunder to defend the three point line well. On the game, the Mavs took 33 attempts from downtown, five more than their season average. And by the end of the first half, it was clearly paying off, as the Mavs were 8 of 20. But the Thunder came out with a new sense of purpose on defense in the second half, and kept Dallas to 2 of 13 three point shooting in the second half.

This is how I would most realistically see a close playoff battle turning out. Kevin Durant will generally score for the Thunder every game, because the Mavericks don't have a defensive equal for him. But Russell Westbrook can be semi-shut down. Westbrook only had 16 points on 42% shooting, to go along with 7 assists and 4 turnovers. In this game specifically, Westbrook was always attacking the rim. The Mavs don't have a big, so it makes sense. But Westbrook was doubled around every screen, making it difficult for him to trigger the offense.

But I find this game encouraging, particularly when considering Billy Donovan's adjustment at halftime. If Donovan can pinpoint specific areas where the team is getting hurt in game and fix them on the fly, then he's already two steps ahead of Scott Brooks. I also find the use of Kyle Singler encouraging. Singler isn't necessarily always offensively useful, nor is he defensively amazing. But Singler can concentrate all of his energy on defense, and is of a particular height and length. So if some basic three point wing (Parsons) is giving OKC trouble, Donovan can assign Singler to shut him down.  Obviously Roberson is the best defender, but he's best used guarding the other team's best overall scoring wing. Rather than a wing who happens to be hitting threes.

One last note- Steven Adams didn't play in this game. That's an encouraging sign if there ever was one.

February 24th, W 116-103

Oklahoma City never relinquished their lead on Dallas throughout, riding an early 15-3 run that started the game. To the Mavs' credit, they were able to bring the game to within three in the late third quarter, and within 8 with about four minutes to go in the fourth. But the Mavs just couldn't build any consistent momentum behind a player that wasn't Dirk Nowitzki.

It was strange for Dirk to have such a good night against the Thunder, at least in recent seasons. In the Thunder's previous two matchups with the Mavs, they made an effort to pressure and double Dirk, resulting in two bad nights for him. Tonight, OKC was definitely making an effort to leave Dirk in single coverage most of the game, only pressuring him late in the fourth quarter. Even stranger is the fact that the Thunder were rather successful at stopping Dirk post-ups, when the right defender was on him. But Dirk would get space in switches, as well as the pick and roll. Of course, Dirk's shooting ability really helped the Mavs in transition as well. Heck, Dirk's ability to get fouled while setting screens on offense helped him out significantly tonight.

When it's all said and done, Dirk had a very successful offensive game. 33 points is a season high for Dirk, and 10 of 16 shooting is pretty ace. But the Thunder really shut down the rest of the Maverick starters. There was a real effort by the Thunder to switch on pick and rolls, while also doing everything they could to stay at home on shooters outside. The result was a lot of given up pick and pops/rolls. But the Mavericks were not able to kick out to open shooters. Case in point, Chandler Parsons had 6 points. (Half under his season average.) Wesley Matthews really suffered as well, shooting just 5 of 16 enroute to 15 points. Even a couple of Matthews' makes were lucky, as he was able to re-set from three twice after a successful Thunder defensive possession. In any case, whenever Matthews was given an opportunity in single coverage, Roberson completely shut him down.

This is how I hope every single game in the series goes. When it boils down to it, Dirk is the Mavs' best player. And when the Mavs get crushed while Dirk is having a good night, it really exposes the Mavs' lack of shot creators. I applaud Donovan to going with a different defensive strategy this time, in that defending beyond the arc is the priority. As long as you can keep up with the Mavs and cover their shooters, they're going to have a hard time getting their offense going.

The one factor in this win that I just can't see as a regularity is Wes Matthews' 4 of 16 shooting night. Matthews does have a terrible field goal percentage on the season, at 39%. And Andre Roberson has the upper hand in any one on one situation, because of his superior length. But there are games where Matthews has hot shooting nights. Specifically, Matthews can really light it up from three and in transition. When Matthews does shoot efficiently, it will probably be the night that the Mavs are challenging to win.


Players who could swing the balance of power

#3. David Lee- Lee joined the Mavs' bench late in the season, and definitely gives them a lot of punch. As a former All-Star, Lee is easily the most accomplished player on the second unit. Lee isn't a good defender, but the Thunder don't generally score at the backup power forward anyway. Lee's job is generally to secure rebounds and score. And I could definitely see Lee getting to the block and scoring against Singler, Durant, or whomever mans the backup power forward spot. Lee would eventually be countered by the starting Ibaka. But if Lee gets to be too much of a problem, I could see Donovan calling on the services of Nick Collison.

#2. J.J. Barea- The Mavs' second unit has always been a big question mark. But Barea averages the most points of any bench player, at 10.9 per game. Furthermore, Barea was effective in the game that he started against the Thunder, scoring 18 points on 46% shooting, to go with 6 assists. Barea's quickness makes him a real problem for the Thunder's second unit. Foye or Waiters might be matched up with Barea at various times, which will lead to a lot of trouble. Barea is especially good at exploiting Kanter in the pick and roll, because Kanter is one of the least quick players in the league. I could see Barea having a 20+ point night and getting clutch minutes for sure.

#1. Steven Adams- Adams provides the Thunder with some really solid paint defense. Some of the best in the league. The Mavericks really don't have an equivalent. Their starter, Zaza Pachulia, is old and has always been about offense first. The Mav backup, Salah Mejri, is too green to be a consistently smart rim protector. The Thunder have some of the best scorers in the league when it comes to attacking the paint, like Westbrook and Kanter. So the possessions that Adams wins on the defensive end will be something that just doesn't come easily to the Mavs. I see this as a huge advantage.


Final Thoughts

The Thunder need to come out dominant and win this series in four games. This Thunder team has been successful in the past, and Oklahoma City fans won't be satisfied with a second round exit. That's why it's paramount for the Thunder to win quickly, so they can be rested for the challenge. The Rockets are dysfunctional, and likely won't be challenging the Warriors. The Grizzlies are Gasol and Conley-less, so they won't be challenging the Spurs. But the Mavericks still have Dirk, and definitely possess the ability to take a couple of games away from OKC.

If Donovan wants to win all four games, he's going to have to be flexible. Rick Carlisle is one of the most chemist-like coaches in the NBA, shuffling players in and out of lineups on a frequent basis. There is no set rotation for the Mavericks. So it's important that Donovan keeps his lineups a bit wacky as well, just to counter whatever small defensive weakness that Carlisle is trying to exploit. For example, it might be a good idea to play Payne and Westbrook together when the Mavs have two point guards on the floor. Generally, Donovan has been fantastic about keeping pace with Carlisle's adjustments in the past, so I'm confident of the Thunder's ability to sweep this series.

Prediction: Thunder in four games.

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