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Series Preview: OKC's stars ready to make up for lost time

Can Mavs exploit Thunder's crunch-time offensive woes in series?

POSTED: Apr 15, 2016 9:22 AM ET

By John Schuhmann

BY John Schuhmann

NBA.com

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Thunder vs. Mavericks: By the Numbers

Go inside the numbers of the Thunder-Mavericks first-round matchup.

The Oklahoma City Thunder had what would normally be thought of as a terrific season. They won 55 games and had the point differential of a team that went 62-20. But in a season in which the Golden State Warriors won 73 games and the San Antonio Spurs won 67, the Thunder were almost an afterthought.

The Dallas Mavericks needed a late surge to get back into the playoffs for the 15th time in the last 16 years. They were an offense-first team all season, but needed to get defensive to win seven out of eight games down the stretch and clinch a playoff berth in Game 81.

Anthony Slater On OKC

Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman joins the GameTime crew to discuss the Western Conference first round matchup between the Thunder and the Mavericks.

The Thunder are the heavy favorite. All season long, there's been a wide gap between the top three teams in the Western Conference and the rest of the pack. Oklahoma City had both the better offense and the better defense this season, and they swept the season series, 4-0. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would love a shot at knocking off the Spurs in the conference semifinals, but before they get there, they'll need to take care of business in the first round.

The Thunder will win if ...

They execute on both ends of the floor in the fourth quarter ... or build a big enough lead prior to the fourth.

You would think that, with two of the league's best offensive players, fourth quarters would be a strength for Oklahoma City. But after the All-Star break, the Thunder were outscored by 50 points in the final period. They blew fourth-quarter leads of nine, 12 and 17 points late in the season and were 3-12 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes after the break.

The Thunder late-game offense has always been under scrutiny, and things haven't been different under coach Billy Donovan than they were under coach Scott Brooks. Ball movement is lacking and with defenses focused on Durant and Westbrook and those guys unwilling to trust their teammates in big moments, good shots are hard to come by. The two All-Stars took 222 (69 percent) of the Thunder's 320 shots in clutch situations.

As hard as those stagnant offensive possessions have been to watch, the Thunder's late-game defense has been worse. They've allowed their opponents to shoot 18-for-32 from 3-point range and score 131 points per 100 possessions in the clutch since the All-Star break. The Thunder starters have been an excellent defensive lineup, but Donovan has gone with Dion Waiters over Andre Roberson down the stretch of close games.

Games will certainly go down to the wire in the playoffs, and Donovan will need to decide if he wants offense or defense on the floor when the game is on the line. The Thunder need to put their fourth-quarter issues behind them before it's too late.

The Mavericks will win if ...

If they can somehow play offense like they did in February and defend like they did in April.

For the last few years, the Mavs have been a much better offensive team than defensive team. That's what you get when you have Dirk Nowitzki in the post on one end of the floor and trying to defend the paint on the other end.

This season, Dallas was at its best offensively in February and early March, with Chandler Parsons carrying them at times and Nowitzki catching fire after the All-Star break. But the Mavs' already-sketchy defense was downright awful as they went 2-10 from March 3-27. At that point, they were in ninth place and three games under .500.

Then Rick Carlisle put rookie Justin Anderson in the starting lineup and the Mavs won six straight games to save their season, holding all six opponents under a point per possession. They went from losing pretty to winning ugly, with Parsons out and Nowitzki shooting just 30 percent during the streak.

Dallas has yet to show it can play at an elite level on both ends of the floor at the same time, something that will be extremely difficult to do in 4-7 games against the Thunder. But their late-season success on defense should help them in a series against the league's second best offense.

3 quick questions and answers

1. Who will step up to complement the Thunder stars?

The Thunder have a lot of pieces around Durant and Westbrook, but most of them are flawed in one way or another. Serge Ibaka's role has been reduced a bit this year and none of their other wings have shot well. Two guys as talented as Durant and Westbrook can take you a long way, but at some point, Oklahoma City will need a role player to pick up the slack when the stars are forced to give the ball up.

2. Can Nowitzki catch fire?

The 37-year-old started showing his age in March and April, shooting 33.6 percent over his last nine games. He's had his moments this season and has shot 50 percent over his last nine games against the Thunder. But with Parsons out, J.J. Barea banged up, and Anderson a minor factor on offense, Nowitzki will need to carry a heavy load on that end of the floor.

3. How will Donovan handle his first playoff series?

Carlisle has been here before and has plenty of experience in making adjustments in the heat of a playoff series. This is Donovan's first rodeo and he'll need to make the right calls, both in regard to what players to use and how to use them, to get the most of his roster.

Making the pick

The Mavs have the coaching and the veterans to make a few of these games interesting. When it looked like they were sinking into Lotteryville, they reinvented themselves and got the big wins they needed to get here. But they just don't have the talent to win more than one or two games against two superstars that have been waiting two years for this opportunity. Thunder in 5.

Data curated by PointAfter

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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