I had planned to write a legitimate preview of the Western Conference Finals, but alas it was not to be. So I’ve decided to do the next best thing, review game one and preview the rest of the series. Due to the fact that the series has already begun, I won’t make a specific prediction, but I will do my best to preview what remains of the final series in the Western Conference.
As we all know, the Mavericks reached the Conference Finals by dismantling the defending champions in a clean four-game, back-alley beat down. Oklahoma City, on the other hand, worked through an arduous seven game series against the Memphis Grizzlies. Dallas had more than a week off; the Thunder had just over 24 hours to celebrate their game seven win over the Grizz. It’s not very often that two teams reach the Conference Finals in such divergent ways.
Game one may have been an indicator for the series, or it may not have been, at this point it’s way too early to tell. What is obvious though, is that allowing Dirk Nowitzki to torch you for 48 points is not exactly a winning game plan.
Which brings me to the first stage of my Western Conference Finals Review/Preview.
Dallas and Oklahoma City matchup pretty well. Neither team has a dominant low post scorer. Both teams have at least one world-class shot maker, and both teams have knock down shooters that do little else. The key defensive matchup for Oklahoma City will be stopping Dirk Nowitzki.
In game one, the Thunder threw every guy they had Nowitzki, and none of it worked. To be fair, though, OKC could have left Dirk completely unguarded on every possession and had a similar success rate. The hardest part about stopping Dirk is deciding when, or if, to double team. Dirk’s most notable offensive weakness is the drive. He’s a much better shooter than he is an attacker, and greatly prefers the jump shot. He can put the ball down, so defenders have to respect the drive, but OKC’s defensive players will do themselves a favor by trying their best to make Nowitzki into a dribble-drive player not a standing or moving jump shooter.
Scott Brooks will have a defensive adjustment for game two; you can count on that. If that means a hard double team on the catch, or help defense coming on the dribble, Oklahoma City no doubt believes that the key to getting to the Finals is going to be stopping Dirk. It’s hard to disagree.
Like Dirk Nowitzki for Oklahoma City, Dallas has to focus their defensive efforts on Kevin Durant. KD is not as pure a shooter as Dirk, but he’s better off the dribble and in the open floor. Durant went for 40 in game one, an indication that he can score at will against the Mavs D, but the Thunder can be forgiven if they’re worried that a big night from their leader wasn’t enough to get the opening W.
Dallas is older than Oklahoma City, and not quite as athletic on the defensive end. Shawn Marion made his name in the league by stopping guys like Durant, but Marion has reached and gone beyond his peak. A few Mavs are going to get their shot at stopping KD, but their best defensive strategies might be zone defense, limiting Durant’s chances to take advantage of isolations, and getting the ball out of KD’s hands and making some other Thunder player beat them.
Beyond the two superstars, the most important matchup for this series is going to be at the point guard position. This is the matchup that in my mind most favors the Oklahoma City Thunder, and if played right could turn the series in their favor. Jason Kidd is old; Russell Westbrook is not. Westbrook has the ability to put the heat on Kidd on the defensive end. Although Kidd can be stashed on defense if Dallas chooses to go that route, hiding him on Thabo Sefolosha or other Thunder players that don’t get the ball on offense, there will be stretches in this series where Kidd will be charged with trying to slow down Westbrook on defense. Westbrook should be able to win the point guard battle on both ends of the floor.
Game one wasn’t Russell’s night. Kevin Durant wagered his house that it wouldn’t happen again in game two. If Westbrook can take advantage of his athleticism, Oklahoma City has the edge at the one spot.
Bringing me to:
In my mind, Dallas’s most significant advantage comes with their second unit. I was personally shocked to see Peja Stojakovic, Jason Terry, and JJ Berea tear up the Blazers in round one. That shock wore off in round two, and has turned to expectations of excellence in the Conference Finals. Peja didn’t go off in game one, but Terry and Berea did.
In game one, Dallas’s bench outscored OKC’s 53-22. Oklahoma City’s bench is going to have to find a way to get going offensively, but more than that, they have to figure out a way to limit Berea, Terry, and the whole gang.
The Thunder has a strong bench, led by James Harden, but their problem is a combination of youth and inexperience. Where Dallas’s bench is stocked with guys that know which spots on the floor they hit from and how best to get to those spots, OKC’s second unit is a bunch of guys all trying to carry the offense. I expect Maynor to have a better game the second time out, but to get through to the NBA Finals, the Thunder are going to have to get productive minutes from Daequan Cook and it wouldn’t hurt to get some kind of offense from Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed.
The Maverick bench has to feel unstoppable at this point, having played a huge role in dispatching the Lakers, and after figuring out how to not get killed by Dirk Nowitzki, Scott Brooks should turn his attention to the bench. A couple more big games from Barea and Terry, or a big night or two from Peja, and this could be a short series.
This series is rife with intrigue, and heavy with drama. The team that responds best to the pressure may well be the Western Conference Champions. The pressures are different, to be sure, and it’s likely that the pressure on Dallas will be more central to the narrative of this series, but Oklahoma City well be facing down their own special brand of potentially overwhelming expectations.
Let me explain what I mean by all of this.
In 2006, the Dallas Mavericks lead the Miami Heat 2-0 in the NBA Finals, then fell apart, losing four straight and the series. Following that monumental collapse, the Mavs were bounced in the Playoffs’ first round three out of the next four seasons, including a 67-win season in which they were the West’s top seed and got chased out in the opening round by the Golden State Warriors. Playoff failure has haunted this franchise. On top of that, deep Playoff success has evaded every single star on the Dallas roster.
This Playoff campaign is shaping up to be The One for Dallas, made more urgent by the fact that the Dallas roster is old from top to bottom. The Mavericks didn’t seem to play like a team facing their final shot at the title during the first or second round. But that doesn’t mean that at some point in the course of a seven game series Dallas will start to doubt that they’ve escaped their own historical failures.
Oklahoma City’s pressure and expectations are of a slightly different breed. The NBA is always on the lookout for the Next Big Thing. With Kobe Bryant finished for the season, and a new champion a certainty for 2010-11, this season might be the first of many championship seasons for one of the young stars with games still left to play.
The Eastern Conference Finals is a matchup of two of the Next Big Things, although you’d be hard pressed to convince me that LeBron James is the future of the NBA not the present, and should Derrick Rose or James be crowned champion of the league be prepared for all the changing of the guard rhetoric.
There’s no doubt that Kevin Durant is somewhat aware of what’s going on in the East, and there’s also no doubt that he’s itching to be part of that Next Gen conversation. Durant is 22, and in four years in the league he has established himself as one of the very best in the game. Getting to the Finals would be big for KD; winning might change the whole conversation. The Miami Heat turned heads in the summer with talk of winning seven titles. Although it’s possible for a team of that age to become a Finals fixture, the Oklahoma City Thunder have the parts, have players of the right age, and have showed steady improvement each year. This could be the team to beat for the near future. The big question is, are they ready at this point in their development as a team to make the leap from up-and-comers to top dogs?
Like I said earlier, it doesn’t feel right to make a specific prediction once the series has already started. I will say this though, I picked against Dallas twice already in these Playoffs. I’m not sure I can do it again.