Western Conference Finals Preview: Mavericks vs. Thunder

The Western Conference Finals between the Dallas Mavericks and the Oklahoma City Thunder present an interesting look in the mirror for both teams. In many ways, the team across the court is very reminiscent of the other in its younger… or older days… depending on which side you’re on.

Each has a 7-footer that plays a perimeter game, a crafty point guard, a shot-blocking presence inside, and a potentially explosive scorer off the bench.  The difference in age leads to a difference in style of play.  But regardless of the ancillary storylines in this series, it will come down to one simple thing:  Which team can more effectively guard the other’s superstar? 

Dallas will start out with Shawn Marion on Kevin Durant, which is a move to try to combat his speed and turn the Durantula into a jump shooter.  Marion’s best bet is to force KD into taking long 2’s as he’s hitting only 35% of those 16-23 footers in the playoffs.  Give him what he thinks is an opening and then close out quickly.  The problem for Marion is his height.  The extra few inches Durant has on him could render the “give him the jumper” defense useless because KD will have enough room to get that high-release shot off. 

Meanwhile, the Thunder will start Serge Ibaka on Dirk Nowitzki.  That’s a little bit of risk seeing as it takes Ibaka and his shot blocking out of the paint, leaving that job all up to Kendrick Perkins.  But what Ibaka will do is force Dirk to either make tough fade-away shots or work the for ball in the post… where Dirk will probably still take fade-aways.  Dirk’s advantage over Ibaka, though, is his experience.  Don’t be shocked to see an overzealous Ibaka bite on fakes as he tries too hard to rise to the challenge of guarding Dirk. 

If Ibaka can stay within himself, stay in front of Dirk, and force Dirk to take tough shots without fouling, OKC will have a huge advantage.  If Marion can keep Durant off the rim and force him to take long, off-balance 2’s, then Dallas will have a huge advantage.  If both can do both of those things… 

…. well… then we get into the other matchups.  

And this is where it gets really interesting.  Russell Westbrook SHOULD have a big advantage over Jason Kidd.  As impressive as JKidd has been, he’s still 59 years old (give or take a year or two).  Westbrook needs to be the guy who breaks down that Dallas “D” and distributes.  The last word is key, because Russ isn’t shy about shooting and he isn’t shy about forcing things.  It won’t be hard for him to get carried away after busting Kidd and getting into the lane.  But Tyson Chandler will happily leave Kendrick Perkins to help on any penetration.  Even if the ball does get to Perk in that situation, Chandler’s athleticism, and Perk’s lack of it, make it a worthwhile gamble.  Dallas needs to staple Marion’s jersey to Durant’s so he doesn’t help, and then let Chandler be THE help guy should any Thunder get close to the rim. 

When the bench comes into play, it’s Jason Terry’s time to shine.  And with Terry comes a barrage of 3-pointers.  What the Mavs were able to do was play some inside-out with Dirk because Gasol couldn’t stop him and LA had to send a double.  Dirk then kicked it out and Dallas found the open 3… and knocked it down.  Really, it’s how Orlando’s offense is supposed to work.  

The Mavs killed the Lakers from deep, but that won’t work quite as well this time around.  And if Dallas was making the Magic’s offense work for them… then OKC needs to make the Anti-Magic defense work as well.  Simply put… don’t double Dirk.  Let Ibaka do his thing and let Dirk try to shoot over the top of him.  Don’t sag off of Jason Terry… don’t leave Jason Kidd alone… non of it.  Let Dirk work inside if he wants, and then stay home on the shooters. 

In the end, this comes down to youth versus experience.  And not that I believe there’s a cosmic force dictating a story-line in these playoffs… but experience hasn’t exactly fared too well.  The Spurs, Lakers and Celtics are all playing golf right now.  The Mavs are facing a team unlike any they’ve beaten so far.  And while neither team has a set-in-stone, consistent second scorer, Westbrook can be that guy when he’s not forcing things.  And James Harden off the bench has flourished in his role, enough to maybe neutralize Dallas’ advantage with Terry’s points off the bench. 

The Mavericks face the rest vs. rust scenario.  If there’s too much rust in Game One, the Thunder could steal it and gain enough confidence to make life very hard on the Mavs.  And Dallas’ prior success in the playoffs means nothing at this point, because the Thunder present so many different matchups.  

OKC might just have too much for the Mavs to handle.  I think they can do the things they need to do better than Dallas will.  I say OKC takes this series, and does so in 6.