NBA 1st Round Preview: Oklahoma City-Dallas

A year ago Dallas went through Oklahoma City in the NBA’s Western Conference Finals, as the Mavericks claimed their first championship. Now it’s Thunder who have great expectations this spring, seeded second in the West, but a familiar foe is awaiting them in the 2-7 spot on the draw. Dallas visits OkC on Saturday to begin their first round series, and TheSportsNotebook previews the matchup…

Neither team is playing particularly well coming into the playoffs. Oklahoma City went just 8-7 in April and coughed up a #1 seed—not just in the West, but overall. Dallas went 9-10 in the final month and lost any chance at playing their way up into the top four, an opportunity instead seized by Memphis.

The Thunder-Mavs series presents a contrast in approaches. Oklahoma City will look to drive the tempo. While it would be a stretch to call Dallas a plodding team, they are in the middle of the league when it comes to pace. The Mavs’ age—six players who draw significant minutes are 32 and up—combined with the strategic desire to neutralize Oklahoma City’s strength, suggests that Dallas will look to play a halfcourt game.

Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki bring the star power to this series and after a slow start to the season, Nowitzki is averaging 22 ppg. Durant won the scoring title, dropping 28 a night and shooting a higher percentage than Dirk from both the floor and behind the arc. But against this resume, Nowitzki’s got the ring and in the NBA that’s an experience and stature factor that can’t be underestimated.

So for the moment let’s assume Durant-Dirk comes out in the wash—although that is giving Dallas a significant benefit of the doubt—and look at another contrast area in the backcourt. Oklahoma City has the clear go-to guy at the guard spot, with Russell Westbrook averaging 24 ppg. James Harden comes off the bench to score 17, although we have to see how’s he’s going to look after taking the cheap elbow to the head from Ron Artest, The Man of World Peace against the Lakers last week. Dallas has depth and experience, with Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Delonte West and Vince Carter. All four average in double-digits, all four hit at least 40 percent from the floor and all four hit at least 35 percent from three-point range. Can you say “interchangeable parts?”

Who wins the backcourt battle is in Oklahoma City ‘s hands and depends on two factors—can Westbrook shoot the ball well, or if he is cold, at least not drag the offense down by excessive gunning? And can veteran Derek Fisher come through at the time of year the Thunder acquired him for? I like Oklahoma City’s chances on both counts.

The Thunder has a further edge in the low post, where Serge Ibaka is one of the league’s best defenders, blocking four shots a game and Kendrick Perkins can bang some bodies around and eat up space. Dallas 7-footer Brendan Haywood is a nice role player, but he’s overmatched by Ibaka, and Nowitzki is at his best when he moves around to the perimeter.

Dallas has the experience and the championship resume, but they are a step behind Oklahoma City in virtually every area. The Thunder’s experience in losing the conference finals last year serves them well here, and they take out Dallas in five games.