Dallas Versus Oklahoma City PreviewWestern Conference Finals
#3 Dallas Mavericks (57-25) vs. #4 Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27)
Season series: Dallas, 2-1
Oklahoma City can win if…Kevin Durant averages 28-plus ppg while shooting at least .450 from the field, Russell Westbrook uses his athletic ability to dominate the point guard matchup and the Thunder's bigs control the paint. The Thunder will not likely be able to slow down Dirk Nowitzki, so the way for them to win the series is to create advantages in the other matchups.
Dallas will win because…the Mavericks have enough big men to at least fight to a draw in the paint, they have multiple bodies to throw at Durant defensively and the Dirk Nowitzki/Jason Terry duo will control any games that are close down the stretch.
Other things to consider: In each of the past two seasons, the media have voted Kevin Durant to the All-NBA First Team instead of Dirk Nowitzki, who would have been my choice both times. Durant is a fabulous scorer and an improving all-around player but he can be bullied by physical defenders and he generally can only beat a team with his scoring; Nowitzki is a proven postseason assassin who can beat teams not only with scoring but also with rebounding and even with his passing: ABC's Jeff Van Gundy made a very insightful point early in Oklahoma City's game seven win over the Memphis Grizzlies when he noted that Durant has not yet learned how to beat opponents by effectively passing out of double and triple teams (Kobe Bryant's mastery of this skill has often been praised by Van Gundy and Hubie Brown and was a very underrated factor in the Lakers' 2008-2010 playoff success). Nowitzki has averaged 25.6 ppg and 10.6 rpg in his playoff career, making him just the fourth player in ABA/NBA history to accomplish this feat (Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor, Hakeem Olajuwon and Bob Pettit are the others).
Westbrook became just the fifth player to post a game seven triple double (14 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds as the Thunder eliminated the Memphis Grizzlies, 105-90), joining a list that includes Hall of Famers/Top 50 selections Jerry West, Larry Bird, James Worthy and Scottie Pippen. Westbrook will be a very tough matchup for the Mavericks--too quick for Jason Kidd, too strong for Jason Terry or J.J. Barea--but even though I expect him to put up great numbers in this series I don't think that this will be quite enough to tip the balance.
The NBA's youth movement came to the forefront this postseason as the veteran teams that combined to win the past four championships (Lakers, Celtics and Spurs) each failed to advance to the Conference Finals but the Mavericks are not a young team by any stretch of the imagination; their rotation players are actually older on average than the Lakers' rotation players, with Dirk Nowitzki being a couple months older than Kobe Bryant (though Bryant has logged several thousand more career minutes than Nowitzki has) and Jason Kidd still performing effectively a couple months after celebrating his 38th birthday. Barea and starting center Tyson Chandler are the only members of Dallas' eight man rotation who are less than 30 years old. However, the Mavs have a deep, well balanced roster and their long range shooting prowess compensates for the fact that they do not have blazing speed at any position (Barea is the only regular member of the rotation who is really quick). The Thunder will certainly play with more energy and effectiveness defensively than the Lakers did last round versus Dallas but the combination of Nowitzki, Terry, depth and homecourt advantage will prove to be enough to lift the Mavericks to their second NBA Finals appearance in the Nowitzki era.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:51 PM