NBA Western Conference Finals Preview - Dallas vs. Oklahoma City
From The Sports Network
By John McMullen, NBA Editor
Dallas Mavericks: 3rd Seed, West (57-25)
Oklahoma City Thunder: 4th Seed, West (55-27)
(Sports Network) - When it comes to sports, Texas and Oklahoma aren't exactly the friendliest neighbors. Most of the animosity stems from the "Red River Rivalry," the annual college football game between the Texas Longhorns and the Oklahoma Sooners that is one of the most storied rivalries in all of American sports.
For the next week or two, that will be trumped by a relatively new pairing creating the animus and hostility, as the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder battle for a berth in the NBA Finals, staring Tuesday in Big D.
The well-rested Mavs, the third seed in the Western Conference, have been kicking back since May 8 when they finished off a four-game sweep of the two- time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Jason Terry and the Mavericks as a whole tied NBA postseason records for three-pointers in the clincher, a 122-86 rout. Despite playing just 25 minutes off the bench, Terry made nine three-pointers to tie an individual postseason record and scored 32 for the Mavs.
"We're halfway to where we want to be," said Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle, whose team went 20-for-32 from beyond the arc to tie the team record for three-pointers made in a playoff game.
Oklahoma City, the No. 4 seed, had a much tougher time with Memphis, needing all seven games to dispose of the surprising Grizzlies.
Kevin Durant scored 39 points on Sunday and Russell Westbrook had a triple- double, leading the Thunder to a 105-90 victory over the Grizzlies in Game 7.
After scoring just 11 points in last Friday's Game 6 loss, Durant went to the basket early and often in this one to help the franchise reach the conference finals for the first time since 1996, when the then-Seattle SuperSonics beat Utah in seven games before losing to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.
"I just attacked," said Durant. "I was so upset with myself for letting my guys down by not playing my game (on Friday). I wasn't aggressive at all. But I stayed with it. I was just positive and confident and kept the faith in the things that got me here."
Dallas won two of three over Oklahoma City in the regular season. Interestingly, the Mavs won both games in OKC while the Thunder took the lone contest in north Texas. Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, however, didn't play in the Thunder win.
The teams have met just twice in the postseason when OKC was based in Seattle but haven't squared off since 1987. In 1984, Dallas took a first round set while the Sonics returned the favor in '87.
POINT GUARD: Dallas sports a ton of experience at quarterback in Jason Kidd, a future Hall of Famer who owns 107 career triple-doubles and moved into third place on the all-time steals list this season behind Michael Jordan and John Stockton. Kidd is a 16-year veteran who thinks pass first and excels in finding scorers in the spots they like. He is, however, lacking quickness at this stage, something his counterpart Russell Westbrook will likely expose.
Westbrook is one of the game's rising young stars. A blur with the ball, the UCLA product can drive at will and kick to the game's best pure scorer in Durant at any time. A plus shooter with good size for the position, Westbrook is always a threat to hang a triple-double on the opposition at any time like he did in Game 7 versus Memphis. Occasionally, he will take some questionable shots and be a little reckless with the basketball but that's something you have to put up with when a guy is this talented. That said, Westbrook took a ton of criticism for taking too many shots against the Grizz. Overall, Westbrook is averaging 23.0 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.0 assists in the postseason but has turned it over 54 times in 12 games.
"Five guys got to try to contain, keep him out of the paint as much as we can and try to make him shoot outside, shoot contested twos," Mavs backup point guard J.J. Barea said when asked about Westbrook. "He's so athletic, so quick, he's going to get there some times, but we've got to try our best to keep him out of there."
SHOOTING GUARD: Neither team has a top-tier option here and the reserves, Terry and Oklahoma City's James Harden, actually get more minutes. Dallas' DeShawn Stevenson is a tough, defensive-minded player that has nice size and strength. The skill level is just not there offensively, however.
The same can be said of the Thunder's Thabo Sefolosha, a very good perimeter defender that often checks the top wing player from the opposing team while on the floor. Sefolosha is also an excellent rebounder from the backcourt and when he gives the Thunder 10 points or more, you can basically guarantee an OKC win that night.
CENTER: Back at the trading deadline in 2009, the New Orleans Hornets agreed to trade Tyson Chandler to the Thunder, but the OKC medical staff nixed the deal due to his balky big toe. Chandler has proven he can stay healthy in Dallas and is a big-time defensive presence who can alter shots, protect the rim and dominate the boards when motivated.
The Thunder finally got their center this season, trading for defensive specialist Kendrick Perkins. The former Celtics' pivot landed in OKC via trade with Boston and signed a multi-year contract extension on March 1 after fitting in nicely. He was acquired to bring a toughness to the team that was lacking and also free up Serge Ibaka, who can now freelance more and use his shot-blocking skills as a weakside defender.
SMALL FORWARD: Shawn Marion is a tireless defender and solid, albeit unorthodox, offensive player. Marion averaged more than 10 points and six rebounds in his second full season with Dallas and has stayed consistent to that in the playoffs.
Durant, however, is a nightmare for any defender. Perhaps the most talented and skilled 6-foot-10 player ever, Durant can beat you off the dribble or over the top. The former Texas star and No. 2 pick in the draft enjoyed the second- best scoring output of his career this season and can take over a game at any given moment. He's scoring at a 28.9 clip in the postseason and adding 7.7 rebounds per game.
POWER FORWARD: Nowitzki averaged 20-plus points for an 11th consecutive season and needs to be on his game in order for the Mavs to move on. The German star is obviously the one opposing teams try to contain on any given night. His fadeaway is unstoppable at times and Carlisle recently called him one of the ten greatest players ever. Nowitzki has arguably been the single best player in the postseason thus far, averaging 26.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game on 49.7 percent shooting and 60 percent from long-range.
"Nobody can guard that guy," TNT analyst Charles Barkley said of Nowitzki.
Ibaka, who has 43 blocked shots in the playoffs, is an extraordinary athlete whose strength lies in his athleticism and natural shot blocking ability. However, I'm not sure he will have the craftiness to keep up with all of Dirk's moves.
"We love Serge," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "Our guys get excited about what he does. Our team is about work and Serge is a worker. He works every day."
BENCH: Terry, who is netting 18.3 ppg in the playoffs, is Dallas' top scoring option after Nowitzki and can really take over a game when the jumper is falling as witnessed in Game 4 against the Lakers. "The Jet" also gives the Mavs a second big-time closer in tight situations.
Barea is a solid backup point guard that excels as a penetrater and kick-out guy, while Peja Stojakovic's run as a big-time scorer is over but he's still a very good pure shooter that can station himself on the weakside to take advantage of any double teams Nowitzki might see. Peja has banged in a team- high 24 threes in the postseason.
Brendan Haywood also gives Carlisle a third big body and impressive length. Meanwhile, depending on the game Carlisle has said either Corey Brewer or Rodrigue Beaubois could go, likely as defensive options to throw at Westbrook or Durant.
James Harden has really settled in as the Thunder's sixth man, scoring 12.4 ppg with 5.1 rpg and 3.7 apg in the playoffs. The former Arizona State star took on a bigger role after Jeff Green was traded to the Celtics in the Perkins deal and will usually be on the floor to finish things. Harden heads a list of strong Thunder reserves that also includes Nick Collison, Eric Maynor and Nazr Mohammed.
Collison will bang down low while Mohammed is another defensive stalwart who can mix it up with opposing big men. Maynor is a nice two-way option and Brooks also calls on sharpshooter Daequan Cook on occasion.
"[Nick] Collison gives you the energy," former NBA coach Mike Fratello said. "Good enough to hit the 17-foot jump shot, he will take a charge, anytime a guy drives the line he's a shot blocker, he's an offensive rebounder -- all the small things that you require from certain guys on your team."
OKC is a plus-68 during the postseason when Harden and Collison are on the floor together and minus-16 when they are not.
COACHING: Carlisle has a solid offensive and defensive pedigree and is one of the more underrated coaches in the game. He has morphed the Mavs from a run- and-gun team that had to outscore you to win into a more well-balanced bunch that can the job done in a number of different ways. He also gets along with volatile Mavs owner Mark Cuban.
Brooks, the 2009-10 NBA Coach of the Year, is one of the game's top young mentors and has melded defensive-minded players like Perkins, Ibaka and Sefolosha in with Durant and Westbrook to turn Oklahoma City into a solid title contender.
"A lot has been said and written about Russell (Westbrook) and Kevin (Durant) and rightfully so; those guys are terrific players and they're doing a lot to put us in positions to win," Brooks said. "But we are a good team because all of our guys chip in and help us find ways to win."
PREDICTION: Dallas will clearly want to slow things down and control the tempo in order to keep Durant and Westbrook bottled up in the half-court set. Kidd certainly has the savvy and skill to milk the shot clock and cut down possessions.
The Thunder, on the other hand, want to get both of their stars easy looks in transitions and make things difficult for Nowitzki. Ibaka figures to get in foul trouble early and often trying to deal with Dirk's laundry list of head and shoulder fakes, making Collison all the more important.
The Mavs will be coming in with nine days of rest, something that can't hurt this time of year when everyone is dealing with assorted bumps and bruises.
"You can look at it that way," Carlisle said when asked if the rest would benefit his team. "The other side of it is that our guys are certainly anxious to play. But we understood that [there was] a chance it could be an extended period of time, and we're ready to deal with that. It is what it is."
Inexperience could also be costly for the Thunder, who have little exposure playing on such a stage. With the exception of Perkins, Mohammed and the rarely used Nate Robinson, OKC's other players have never advanced past the first round before this season, let alone reached the conference finals.
Comparatively, the core of Mavericks have a wealth of experience at their disposal, reaching the 2006 Finals and possessing solid veteran leadership from Kidd, who reached the NBA Finals twice with the New Jersey Nets.
In the end, Dallas just looks a little deeper and will should be able to take advantage of home-court against a very young Thunder club that might be worn down from its war with Memphis.
"Dallas is going to beat Oklahoma City," Barkley said. "It's going to be very difficult for Oklahoma City because Dallas is going to play Kevin Durant well. Dallas is too big, too deep and they're going to the Finals."
MAVS in 7
05/16 14:04:22 ET