By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
Posted Apr 27 2012 9:41AM
This Red River NBA rivalry adds another chapter with the two teams that squared off in the Western Conference finals last year doing it all over again, this time with the Thunder playing the favorites role and the Mavericks on the other side. The last time they met, the series ended quicker than expected, with the Mavericks winning in five games on their way to their first NBA title and exposing the Thunder as a talented-but-still-maturing outfit along the way.
The Mavericks are well aware that times have changed, though. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are a season older, wiser and better. Serge Ibaka has come into his own as the league's premier shot blocker and a defensive menace. Kendrick Perkins is in great shape and much more comfortable in the Thunder's system. And unlike the Mavericks, the Thunder will show up with essentially the same group from their conference finals matchup of a season ago.
"They're a great young team. We're a veteran team," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "We know the kind of capabilities that they have as a team, and we know what we have to do to play at our level. It's a great matchup. There's geographic interest because the two teams are close together and we had a really intense series with them last year. It's a tough matchup, but we're looking forward to it."
If you noticed an absence of fear in the Mavericks there's a good reason for that. They're still wearing that championship confidence that carried them to The Finals. And even though they struggled at times throughout this condensed season, they have no fear of the Thunder or anyone else in the Western Conference playoff field.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made that clear to ESPNDallas.com, mentioning the top seeded Spurs and Thunder, specifically, as teams that have excelled this season but are far from invincible.
"The Spurs have been playing great, obviously, because they've been shooting really well," Cuban said. "But, we've been that team before, too. And they were that team last year.
"Again, like I've said all year long, the regular season means next to nothing," Cuban said. "Every single team, even the Spurs for a period there when they go through a tough part of their schedule, struggle. The Thunder, I don't know what their record was over the last 10 games (6-4), but there was nobody that was overly impressive. So we'll see what happens."
The Thunder's struggles down the stretch of the regular season was a startling departure for a team that held the top spot in the West for months. They had visions of gaining home court advantage throughout the playoffs, with their sights set beyond the conference finals and into The Finals, only to stumble under the weight of those expectations late.
Coach Scott Brooks has dismissed those concerns all along, making it clear to his team that even a championship-caliber group will endure its share of in-season struggles.
The Thunder won't have to wait long to prove his theory correct. Not with the reigning world champions, a team that endured its own ups and downs during the regular season a year ago before refocusing and rolling in the playoffs, knocking on their door to tip off this postseason.
1. Would a Mavericks win in this series qualify as an upset? Only on paper. These teams played four close games this season, with the Thunder winning three of them, including the first matchup on Dec. 29 with a Durant buzzer-beater. But this is as close a 2-7 matchup as you'll find.
2. Is James Harden fully recovered from that Metta World Peace elbow? He's been cleared by the doctors, but no one will know for sure until Saturday. He has to be in order for the Thunder to win.
3. Who plays the role of Tyson Chandler for the Mavericks? Brendan Todd Haywood is on the clock. If he anchors the defense anything like Chandler did against the Thunder the conference finals, things get very interesting.
4. Is this where the Derek Fisher factor shows up for the Thunder? Absolutely. Fisher has been through so many playoff battles throughout his career. His leadership will be key in this series. A big shot or two wouldn't hurt, either.
5. Does home court make a difference this time around? Sure it does. It always does. But no one has to worry about a Game 7. It won't last that long.
Brooks is not into trickery. Between Durant, Westbrook and Harden, the bulk of the Thunder's offense goes through those six hands. And when they are are in a groove, the Thunder are virtually unstoppable. The Thunder have one of the youngest and most explosive teams in the league. They have to lean on those attributes as much as possible against a team that cannot keep up with them. The key is Westbrook and whether or not he is facilitating the offense and involving others or locked into scoring mode and calling his own number first. His choices will be crucial.
One added wrinkle is that they can play inside out a bit more this season. Perkins and Ibaka proved in a win over the Heat that they can rise to the occasion when there is an opportunity.
The oldest team in the league, the Mavericks aren't exactly interested in racing the Thunder (or anyone else) up and down the floor. In another era, a Jason Kidd-Shawn Marion-Vince Carter-Dirk Nowitzki-Jason Terry lineup would have been absolutely devastating. But that was then and this is 2012. And that fantasy squad is not Carlisle's reality. What the Mavericks have is a measured attack that takes advantage of Nowitzki's ability to exploit mismatches against anyone assigned to guard him and an offensive flow directed by Kidd that keeps the ball moving until they get the right shot.
The Mavericks don't have that J.J. Barea factor this time around, so they'll have to rely on either Delonte West or Roddy Beaubois to play that role off the bench alongside Terry in this series.
Durant didn't win three straight scoring titles for nothing. A 6-foot-10 shooter with his range and ability to score from deep, in traffic and with a variety of moves, has to see the ball with the game on the line. He's already beaten the Mavericks once this season on a buzzer beater. The ball is going to be in one of two places: Durant's hands or Westbrook's hands. They've taken 117 and 85 shot attempts, respectively, in clutch time. Harden ranks third on the team with 11 such attempts.
Nowitzki redefined a legacy on his way to The Finals MVP trophy he took home last year after he outdueled every other star player the Mavs faced on the road to their title. He remains an impossible matchup and one of the league's best free throw shooters. But Terry is just as eager to don his cape in the clutch, while Kidd and Carter have been known to come through at winning time.
It's not every day that an All-NBA point guard finds his way to to the wild card list. Yet here is Westbrook, a mercurial talent and such a crucial part of what the Thunder does. His ability to play under control emotionally and within the framework of the Thunder's game plan is going to be the factor that ultimately determines if OKC is championship-ready or not.
The Mavericks have their own emotional wild card in West, whose powers work for good and sometimes bad, depending on the day. But the two guys that could help even things out for the if these games are played at the Thunder's preferred pace are athletic bigs Brandan Wright and Ian Mahinmi. They have the fresh legs and bounce needed to deal with a team team like the Thunder.
This a series between two teams that are much more evenly matched than the seeds before their names. The Thunder's 3-1 edge in the regular season could have very well been 2-2. Youth wins out over experience, this time, as all of these games go down to the wire. Thunder in six.
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