Posted May 16 2011 3:03AM
DALLAS -- Some 205 miles of Interstate 35 and roughly three and a half hours separate Dallas and Oklahoma City.
Measuring the distance between the NBA franchises in those two cities, however, isn't nearly as easy. They are contemporaries in the regular-season standings only.
The veteran Mavericks have been at this for the better part of the past decade, knocking on championships' door, with a seemingly different cast of characters year after year. The Thunder, meanwhile, are making just their second (consecutive) playoff appearance since relocating from Seattle and are wading into the deepest playoff waters their young core has ever seen in person.
This matchup between these two outfits in the Western Conference finals provides a unique glimpse of the past (Mavericks), present (whoever wins this series) and perhaps the future (Thunder) of the elite in the West.
Neither the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers nor the regular-season top dog in the Western Conference San Antonio Spurs hung around long enough to make their case. The Mavericks swept the Lakers in the conference semifinals. The Memphis Grizzlies, eliminated by the Thunder in seven games in the conference semifinals, popped the Spurs in the first round.
So instead of Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan waging a battle of seasoned champions to reach yet another NBA Finals, twin freaks of nature and dueling superstars Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant are left to fight it out for the right to face either the Bulls or Heat for that coveted Larry O'Brien trophy.
Had either one of their teams made it this far and faced the Lakers or Spurs to get to the championship round, it wouldn't have been much of a shock. But now that they're here facing one another, this clash between these two would-be rivals can take its place among the many interstate showdowns folks in Texas and Oklahoma have enjoyed over the years.
There weren't two teams with more quality depth in this postseason on either side of the conference bracket.
The Mavericks boast a 10-deep rotation that Rick Carlisle deploys liberally, a group filled with names like Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler, Peja Stojakovic, DeShawn Stevenson, J.J. Barea, Brendan Haywood and Corey Brewer. So confident are the Mavericks in their depth that you're just as likely to see Barea with the ball in his hands with the game on the line as you are Nowitzki.
The Thunder can go 10-deep as well, with Scott Brooks leaning on All-NBA pick Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, James Harden, Nick Collison, Nazr Mohammed, Eric Maynor and Daequan Cook. Westbrook is just as likely to finish you off as Durant, the reigning two-time scoring champ, though not everyone is convinced that Westbrook finishing games for the Thunder instead of Durant is a good thing.
Now that these two will meet in the middle of that stretch of highway that separates them, we're going to see who flinches first.
1. How much will the eight days between games affect the Mavericks, who swept through the conference semifinals on their way to their first conference finals appearance since 2006? If this was any other team there might be cause for concern. But the Mavericks have such a seasoned and versatile group that they can play basically any style and still win games. That lights-out 3-point shooting display against the Lakers (49-for-106) masked the fact their defense is what won the series for them. They worked like it was training camp during their break and should be ready to go for Game 1.
2. Who in the state of Oklahoma can guard Dirk Nowitzki? If we learned anything from watching the Trail Blazers and Lakers use every available body they had to try and slow Nowitzki down it's that no one outside of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol has a shot of slowing down the Mavericks' 7-foot superstar. Serge Ibaka will foul out early and often with his aggressive style. Thabo Sefolosha might fare better against him in stretches. But anyone else is going to be raw meat for a rested Nowitzki, who can work inside and out against any defense.
3. Who in the state of Texas can guard Kevin Durant? An equally nightmarish matchup for most teams, the Grizzlies provided a blueprint, of sorts, for slowing down Durant. Since his post-up game is still in the construction phase, smaller, active defenders like DeShawn Stevenson and Shawn Marion should be able to at least bother him a little bit. Durant plays so far out on the wing at all times that it doesn't make sense for any of the Mavericks' bigs, and that includes Nowitzki, to worry about chasing Durant. If he plays like he did in that Game 7 win over the Grizzlies, Walker Texas Ranger won't be able to stop him with a roundhouse kick.
4. Better yet, who on the face of the planet is going to slow down Russell Westbrook? There isn't a soul in this series capable of keeping Westbrook down for long stretches, and that includes all of his critics. Westbrook played great in the conference semifinals, not that you could tell from all the heat he got for shooting too much and not facilitating enough at times against the Grizzlies. The fact is, he is two steps quicker than any single defender the Mavericks will throw at him. He needs to remain in attack mode but do so with the rest of the floor in his sights. Because he won't be allowed to finish at the rim without hands in his face, not as long as Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood are waiting on him once he gets there.
5. Don't the Mavericks have to win this series after sweeping the two-time NBA champion Lakers to get here? It would appear so. They are the team that meets all the prerequisites for championship contention. They have the veterans with the extensive playoff experience and the head coach who has experience guiding championship-caliber teams. Yet it was the Thunder that graced the cover of all of the NBA previews (Sports Illustrated and many others). Still, the Mavericks shoulder the biggest intangible burden in this series because their championship window, with this core group, is closing in the next couple of years.
When the Mavericks have the ball: Whether it's Jason Kidd, J.J. Barea or even Jason Terry, the Mavericks' directive is always the same. They're trying to find the best mismatch, take advantage of it and force the defense to react to what they are doing. They played the screen-and-roll game to perfection against the Lakers, forcing Phil Jackson to pick his poison with floor spread and Nowitzki waiting to slay you in one spot or the Mavericks' army of wide open shooters willing to do so everywhere else on the floor if they couldn't stop dribble penetration.
Barea and Kidd are the triggermen for the Mavericks during crunch time with Nowitzki and Terry usually on the receiving end of whatever they can cook up. Barea shredded the Lakers -- he even took a nasty elbow to the ribs from Andrew Bynum for doing so -- with his repeated forays into the paint. The Lakers had to make that choice again and again, stop him or leave those shooters unguarded. As the Lakers found out, it's simply choosing how you'd like to be dismissed.
When the Thunder have the ball: There isn't but one duo still playing in these playoffs as or more dynamic than the Durant-Westbrook 1-2 punch the Thunder can throw at you, and they (LeBron James and Dwyane Wade) are busy with Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals. That said, Durant and Westbrook have to find a comfortable balance against the Mavericks much sooner than they did against the Grizzlies. Westbrook has to set the table for Durant and the rest of the Thunder while also keeping his attacking skills on point.
The Mavericks have had eight extra days to study and prepare for them, so they'll try and exploit Westbrook's penchant for one-on-one play in an effort to limit his effectiveness. If he's playing the way he did in Game 7 against the Grizzlies -- a 14-point, 14-assist, 10-rebound triple-double that ranks as one of just five all-time in Game 7s in NBA history -- it won't matter. These two alone are explosive enough to push a team over the top in an offensive shootout.
Wild cards: Jason Terry should be inducted into the Wild Card Hall of Fame, or at the very least have the Wild Card MVP trophy named after him when he's finished playing. Any player capable of knocking down a record-tying nine of 10 shots from beyond the 3-point line in a close-out game for a sweep of the two-time defending champs has earned that much. But the Thunder's James Harden might be his equal in this series. Harden has the size, athleticism and range on his shot to give the Mavericks a third offensive threat to worry about. Much like Westbrook, Harden has to stick to what works and not take what the Mavericks give to him. He has to attack his defender off the dribble and not just settle for outside shots, which makes him much less of a threat to the Mavericks' pack-it-in defensive approach.
Let's get ready to rumble: Thunder big man Kendrick Perkins has been hunting for a sparring partner throughout this postseason. The Nuggets' Nene obliged occasionally in the first round and the Grizzlies' duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol were more than willing to engage in a little MMA-style boxing out during the conference semifinals. Mavericks center Tyson Chandler, however, is antsy after eight days of watching everyone else have his kind of fun. So it shouldn't take long for these two to get tangled up. As long as they keep it clean, it should be as entertaining an individual matchup as there is in this series.
The Pick: The Mavericks are perfect since that fourth quarter meltdown in Game 4 of their first-round series against the Trail Blazers. That's six straight games where they've simply been the best team on the floor when it mattered most. It should take them at least that many games to prove the same thing against a game Thunder squad that, while as explosive as any team still in the field, doesn't have the experience needed to survive the deep end of the playoff pool, just yet. Mavericks in 6.
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