Thunder Looking to Kick-Off Road Trip Right

DALLAS -- When a foe becomes familiar, it doesn’t matter what the records are, it always ends up being a hard-fought contest.

As the Thunder starts its longest road trip of the season, a six-game West Coast trip starting tonight in Dallas before it heads to Denver then takes on all five California teams, it knows it must bring it’s “A” game every night. Head Coach Scott Brooks’ club gets the best game from its opponent each and every night, and that will be no different tonight against the Mavericks in what will likely be a back-and-forth battle.

“When you go on a West Coast trip, you know that every team you face is going to be a difficult challenge,” Brooks said. “The arenas that we’re in are going to be tough arenas to play in. Starting with tonight, we’re going to have to play really a good basketball game.”

The Mavericks are 17-23 on the season, but are winners of four straight games and perhaps playing their best basketball of the season. It’s no coincidence that that uptick in performance coincided with the re-emergence of Dirk Nowitzki into the starting lineup after he lost most of the season-to-date due to injury. It will be up to long, lanky defenders like Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins to keep Nowitzki in check.

“They have their horse back in Dirk,” Durant said. “He’s playing well now, he’s closing out games for them… They’re running the ball, they’re in transition a lot. Dirk is doing a great job of making it easier for everybody else. We just have to come out and be focused form the beginning and be ready to play.”

Recently, Nowitzki has helped his teammates find more of a rhythm. After the Thunder’s overtime victory over the Mavericks in Oklahoma City earlier this year, the Thunder is quite aware of the complementary pieces on Head Coach Rick Carlisle’s team. From OJ Mayo to Darren Collison to Elton Brand, the Mavericks are becoming increasingly difficult to contend with on the offensive end.

“They’re playing much better,” Brooks said. “They’re playing faster. OJ is having a great year. Marion is kind of back to his normal position at the three. Collison had a good game against us last game, so he’s a guy who we have to play close attention to. Tonight’s game, anytime we play against Dallas either home or away, it always comes down to a fourth quarter game.”

Tonight the Thunder must balance a fine line between contesting shots and being too physical. The Thunder comes in as the second best in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage, but the Mavericks rank fifth in the league in free throw percentage. As a result, it will be key for the Thunder to stay in front of their men, cover the pick and roll correctly and then get a hand in their man’s face without making contact.

“We can’t give them open shots,” Brooks said. “This team can make shots, starting with one of the best shot-makers in basketball in Dirk. Collison made shots against us. Brand can come in, he’s even having a nice little stretch during this four-game winning streak. We have to definitely contest their shots.”