The 2016 playoffs are here, and the Oklahoma City Thunder have the Dallas Mavericks as their first round opponent. The WTLC staff tackles some of the questions facing the Thunder, and make their playoff prediction below.
1. Do the Mavericks have a chance of defending Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook?
J.A. Sherman: No. Aaaand...no.
But here is the better question - will the Thunder have the patience to exploit both of those positions? In the past, Chandler Parsons had occasional success guarding Durant, but with Parsons injured...well, Parsons still might be their best defender on KD sitting on the sideline in his designer t-shirts. But that means nothing if OKC doesn't put KD in a position where he can take advantage of his abilities. And guess what? That position is not 30 feet from the rim trying to dribble against JJ Barea. Don't waste Durant's natural attributes - the Mavs have nobody on their roster who can handle him below the free throw line, but that is only if he doesn't allow himself to be guardable.
Deron Williams can't stay in front of Russ, but the Mavs may get a little sneaky guarding Westbrook; I can see some sequences where they stick the stronger and defensively savvy Wes Matthews on him to keep him out of the lane and off the block. That will work part of the time, but because Westbrook has become so adept at running pick and rolls, all they have to do is run them with either Durant or Kanter and OKC will get an abundance of open looks.
R.K. Anthony: The only two players capable of stopping Durant and Westbrook in this series are Durant and Westbrook. No one in a Mavs uniform can stay in front of Russ and if KD will work to get the ball in his kill zone from 20 feet in consistently the Mavs will have a short post season. This would be a great time to put the finishing touches to the offense and not settle for low percentage type possessions. Bigger tests are just around the corner.
rustybrooks: The Mavericks have no chance but to collapse and double immediately. They will try to take out Durant with hard doubles on the perimeter to force turnovers but in trying to do so they may cede even more rebounding opportunities than they realize. OKC should come out looking like a title contender ready to take out another Texas team.
Kevin Yeung: The Mavericks are going to play a bunch of tiny perimeter players. Justin Anderson and Wes Matthews are both 6-6 and pretty hefty, but they'll have a hell of a time getting up to challenge Durant's shot. They might fare better against Russell Westbrook, but the Mavs like to use lineups with two or even three point guards, and that means there will be situations where Westbrook will be defended by Deron Williams, J.J. Barea, Raymond Felton and Devin Harris. Of those, Harris might be their best option against Westbrook, but it still doesn't look good.
Rick Carlisle will throw some zones or partial zones out there, situations where they'll send a second defender towards Westbrook and zone up behind him, and I suspect he'll find permutations that work for a stretch. Never underestimate Carlisle. But there are too many defensive minuses, not enough good matchups, and in the end, there isn't enough there for the Mavs.
2. Dirk Nowitzki is a unicorn. How much does he have left, and is it enough to give the Thunder some trouble?
Sherman: Dirk is everyone's cup of joy, and I will be far more sad to see the day he hangs up his hightops than having to endure the Kobe Bryant farewell tour, which had all the joy to me of the final Seinfeld episode. Rick Carlisle has figured out just the right mix of Dirk in order to keep him fresh and not hurt the team's defense too badly, and he will undoubtedly have some efficient scoring games against OKC. But here's the thing - it shouldn't matter. They can probably let Dirk have whatever shots he wants, and as long as he's not playing 40 minutes a night anymore, it won't be enough because OKC has more than enough offense to counter even a great night from Dirk. It's all about keeping Dallas one-dimensional.
And here is where I need to state the obvious - Dirk has crazy offensive gravity. Defenders simply choose to not leave him, thereby letting sub-par offensive role players get wide open looks. Dirk's gravity is deserved, but he is not Steph Curry. His range doesn't extend out to 28 feet. The Thunder need to pay him his respects, but don't allow Dirk to force multiple defenders to latch onto him far from the rim and thereby compromise the overall defensive structure.
Anthony: The clock is quickly approaching midnight on the Dirk era, but his minutes have been restricted enough during the season to possibly leave him with a few games left in the tank if he gets enough Cryotherapy. The man can shoot the rock, but the Thunder shouldn't over commit because this unicorn is graying quickly and should fade early.
rustybrooks: Dirk and Carlisle do some advanced resting techniques to save him for the playoffs. They would play him at the beginning of one half in a game and then rest him until the second half of the subsequent game. He will explode these playoffs and give them clutch shooting in the last three minutes of a game.
Yeung: Dirk will score a bunch, and he'll give even Serge Ibaka a hard time. Even at this stage of his career, he'll force the Thunder to contort their defensive schemes a bit to account for him at all times. There's probably going to be a game where he leads the way to a Mavs win, scoring the most glorious 30 points of all time ever as Dirk does. But that's probably not enough to give them sustainable trouble, and so I'm not too worried. That said, I'm going to have so much fun watching him.
3. Let's play a quick game of WHAT IF. What would this series look like if Chandler Parsons was healthy? How about if DeAndre Jordan never flaked on the Mavs?
Sherman: Parsons - He does have a way of hitting big shots against the Thunder, and he's the one guy who has the ability to be both a creative scorer and a playmaker for his teammates. He doesn't necessarily move the needle that much, but would make it necessary for the Thunder defense to exert themselves a bit. Maybe he earns an extra game for Dallas, but it's probably not enough to swing things too far. My biggest lament is that we won't get any great Photoshops of him this series from Bennett.
Jordan - I think back to Mark Cuban's great quote about DJ...yes, this one...and think about how on-point it is. Not only because it's accurate - that the Clippers still have all the problems they had a year ago, but if anything they're even worse off now because of the Blake Griffin ham-fisted saga. They were a dark horse last season; this year they're likely going to get swept in the 2nd round.
Having DJ on the Mavs doesn't necessarily boost them into the top 3 in the West, but maybe it puts them where the Clips are at #4, meaning a stronger likelihood that they play into the 2nd round for the first time in years. It would have also made the Clips slightly less annoying, and that's always a positive.
Anthony: Parsons: Durant would have his average series vs a potential great series. Jordan: I would have said an improvement on rebounding until I looked at the team rankings. No surprise to see Dallas at #24 in total rebounds in the league, but the Clippers are only four spots better. Jordan is a better shot blocker but Zaza opponents have scored almost 6 points less in the paint than Jordan's foes.... and besides, if Jordan hadn't flaked we wouldn't have someone named "Zaza" to talk about for the next 4 or 5 games.
rustybrooks: If DeAndre and Chandler were healthy Mavs, this series goes seven games. Chandler has offensive firepower and is used to playing fast with threes. Deandre would also work wonderfully in the hybrid zone defense Carlisle has been known to use and his presence on the glass can move the needle in a series. But Durant at the 4 with Kanter is too much front court offense for this hypothetical Mavs team in seven games.
Yeung: Imagine if the Mavs had a wing taller than 6-6 to play in this series. Even Jeremy Evans would count for something here, to drive the point home. Having Parsons would be huge, even though he's not anything special as a defender, just to be able to throw some size at Durant. They'll miss his offense too, of course. Depending on how think you close this series might get (a couple of smart folks I've read are huge on the Mavs' coaching advantage in this series, which, sure), having Parsons would really have narrowed that gap.
If DeAndre Jordan didn't flake on the Mavs, Rick Carlisle would've turned him into everything Brandan Wright's PER was supposed to be.
4. The Thunder are coming into this series as heavy favorites. How do the Mavs win a game? What should the Thunder watch out for?
Sherman: The Mavs will steal a game if OKC falls victim to their year-long nemesis - sloppy 4th quarters. We know that Dallas has shooters in Dirk, Deron, and Matthews who are capable of hitting big shots. The focus for OKC should be to make sure there are no big shots to be hit. That means that if Carlisle does what Carlisle is wont to do - get creative and attack OKC's weaknesses at the point when Westbrook rests - the Thunder have to be ready to adapt and evolve.
Anthony: This is a left field type of concern but there has been something nagging at me ever since the match ups were locked in; the January 13th game in which Westbrook lost his cool and got ejected. In the 2011 playoffs Rick Carlisle used Jason Terry to get under Westbrook's skin and as we saw in the game in January Westbrook still has certain buttons that can be pushed and Barea knows just when to hit them. Russell can't let that happen or.....(see next question)
rustybrooks: The Thunder need to watch their numbers on the boards and ensure that they are exercising their advantage there first. Certainly the pace of the game cannot be slow as that plays into Coach Rick's favor. If Russ and KD defend and run they should be fine. Notice I did not mention shooting numbers. Those could go either way and are sufficient to win but not necessary to do so.
Yeung: It's all little things, I think, that the Thunder have to be wary of all coming together at once. Dirk, for one. But I'm intrigued by how Carlisle out-schemes the greener Billy Donovan. I think Carlisle will come prepped with a number of tricky zone schemes and offensive sets that swing the ball from ball-handler to ball-handler, and really try to take it to the Thunder by presenting them with unusual looks that put them out of their element and force them to keep moving. The talent gap is narrow and that gives the Thunder a cushion no matter what, but if you ease up mentally against a Carlisle team, there's going to be all sorts of playbook fluff that'll suck you in and spit you out a Mavs bucket later. So be careful, and stay dialed in for the chicanery.
5. Make your series prediction.
Sherman: Thunder in 5. They swept Dallas in the regular season and the Mavs simply do not have enough offense or defense to consistently stop OKC. They will get one win at home because Wes Matthews will start hitting everything from long range (as shooters playing against OKC often do), Barea will do Barea things, which puts the Steven Adams snark-o-meter over-under at about 7 for the series, Dirk will hit big shots, and we'll all freak out in game 3 or 4. And then OKC will come back and Westbrook will single-handedly destroy them and we'll laugh about it afterward, but still be thankful that Dirk is still Dirk and it's great having him in the playoffs.
Anthony: ...a series that should be over in five or less could stretch out to six. I think Dirk will have a throwback Dirk game, my guess is game 3 or 4, and the Mavs walk away without getting swept for the entire season, but if Barea can get Westbrook to do something really dumb the Mavs could make this a much more interesting series than it should be. However, if my fears are unfounded I say the Thunder cruise to the second round in 5 games.
rustybrooks: OKC in 5.
Yeung: I'd consider a Carlisle team pulling off just about any upset if it wasn't this team. The talent gap is too wide this year. There's enough stuff there for a spark, but nothing that can be a sustainable leg up on the Thunder.