NBA Western Conference Finals Preview: Mavs vs Thunder
By Sam Littman
In reaching the Conference Finals for the first time since moving to Oklahoma City, and after suffering through a couple dreadful transition years, the exceptionally young Thunder is savoring its standing among the league’s elite.
Their opponent, the perennial 50-win powerhouse Mavericks, are just remembering what it is like to reach this level, an entirely different taste of power that can be even more dangerous.
This is a battle of young and old unlike any the league has ever seen. The Thunder’s three best players are 22 years old or younger; the Mavs three best players are 32 or older. But as is still generally the case in such matchups, the younger team is inherently the underdog.
Both clubs feature a superstar who is not only renowned for his tremendous scoring ability, but because he is all but unguardable. While it is possible to keep LeBron or Kobe in check on any given night, Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki always control their own destiny. A 6-10 small forward with a 7-5 wingspan, Durant’s silky smooth jumper is nearly impossible to block and almost as hard to alter.
A 7-footer with the best mid-range jumper in the game, Nowitzki can get his shot whenever he wants, and this past year set a career high in field goal percentage at 51.7%.
Which superstar will take his game to yet another level and claim the series for his squad? Despite Durant’s ability to explode for 40 points more easily than Nowitzki, all signs would point to the latter. Nowitzki is averaging 26.5 points per game in the postseason, and he’s doing it with ease. The Lakers threw the 7-0 Gasol and 6-10 Odom on Nowitzki to no avail, as Nowitzki shot 50% in Game 1, 56.3% in Game 2, 63.2% in Game 3, and 63.6% in Game 4. The big German never shied away from the basket when he had a defender in his grill, and as a 90% free throw shooter, you can bet that Rick Carlisle is strongly encouraging him to take it to the hole more often.
Durant and Nowitzki are both averaging a very impressive 1.4 points per shot in the playoffs, but Durant was able to get to the free throw line much more often against an overly aggressive and occasionally immature Grizzlies team. You can be sure that the seasoned Mavs will be much more judicious in their physical play. The Thunder have a good matchup for Nowitzki in the freakishly athletic and surprisingly mature Serge Ibaka, who is arguably the league’s best shot blocker and most foul prone big man. Ibaka averaged 2.7 blocks against Memphis, but also recorded five fouls in five games over the course of the series.
The brunt of Rick Carlisle’s attention will be focused on Russell Westbrook, who put up 24 points, 7.6 assists and 5.3 boards against Memphis. An extraordinarily athletic 6-3 force, Westbrook should have no trouble blowing by the 38-year old Jason Kidd. Carlisle will likely have to mess with a combination of JJ Barea and Jason Terry to slow the All-NBA 2nd Team point guard.
While Westbrook has been putting up sensational numbers, he’s also drawn a fair share of ire for his shot selection. Westbrook has taken more shots than Durant in the playoffs despite playing five less minutes per game, and is averaging a meager 1.18 PPS as a result.
Nowitzki’s longtime wingman, Jason Terry, is enjoying perhaps his best playoffs ever, but Dallas will need more than JET’s sharp-shooting prowess to upend the Thunder. Luckily, they’ve been one of the most balanced teams in the playoffs thus far.
The Mavs have five players averaging between 7 and 10.7 points per game in the playoffs, and all are unique threats in their own rights. Peja can never be left alone on the perimeter (46.2% from range in the playoffs), Kidd is averaging 2.2 threes himself and can still muscle by any point guard, Marion is a terror in transition and on cuts to the hole, J.J. Barea picks apart opposing defenders to a near nightmare-inducing level, and Tyson Chandler rarely shoots below 60% from the field. The Thunder has a very dynamic scorer in James Harden and the ever-improving Ibaka, but everyone else relies on open looks and put-backs.
When you consider that the Thunder only have three players that can consistently create offense for themselves, the Mavs’ sterling defensive numbers look all the more foreboding. The Mavs have not allowed 100 points once in the playoffs, while the Thunder consistently surrendered more than 100 points to the Grizzlies, who were missing their leading scorer and could not hit an open three to save their lives. The Mavs defense has been impenetrable throughout the playoffs, and the Thunder’s offense might not be dynamic enough to change that.
With their amazing 1-2 punch of Durant and Westbrook, it’s hard to ever count the Thunder out. It just might not be their time. When Harden and Ibaka reach their full potential the Thunder could own the West for years, but this Mavericks team is too hot, too tough and too hungry. Dirk wants a title more than anyone, which spells bad news for OKC.
Prediction: Mavs in 6