The Official Two Man Game Official Dallas Mavericks Versus Oklahoma City Thunder Official Western Conference Finals Preview for the Official 2010-2011 Official NBA Post-Season
I never expected to be writing series previews for the Mavs this deep into the post season, but here I am, and here are the Mavs, playing some absolutely fantastic two-way basketball. Dallas played through the first two rounds as well as any team in the playoffs, but in the Conference Finals they’ll face their toughest opponent yet. Oklahoma City has neither Portland’s obvious flaws nor L.A.’s crippling defensive issues, and contending with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the Thunder’s brilliant supporting cast will require more incredible execution from the Mavs. There was little room for error during this playoff run to begin with, but Dallas must continue to walk the fine line of passing without overpassing, pressuring on D without fouling, and committing to a team defensive front without sacrificing the means to grab defensive rebounds.
Reducing this series to a “who guards Dirk/Durant?” bullet point may be oversimplifying things a bit, but I understand the temptation to determine the victor of this series by way of defending an opponent’s star player. Nowitzki and Durant are both fantastic offensive players without clear cross-team matchups; Shawn Marion* and DeShawn Stevenson will get the call for Dallas and Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison for OKC, but none of those four should be expected to do a stellar defensive job, even on the basis of an individual game. All four defenders will work like crazy to defend their man, but there’s only so much you can do against Nowitzki’s array of jab steps and fakes and Durant’s combination of size, speed, and shooting.
*Marion actually didn’t spend much time at all defending Durant this season. Caron Butler logged a lot of time against Durant the first two times the teams met, and Marion spent the last game of the season series filling in for an injured Nowitzki. In both contexts, Marion ended up covering Jeff Green during many of his minutes, but should see a lot more of Durant in the games to come.
The key in either matchup is the minimization of losses — which team can manage to get torched for less. With that in mind, I think the Mavs have a bit of an advantage on the superstar front. Whether Nowitzki or Durant is the superior player hardly matters. What does is the fact that Nowitzki has more easily initiated ways to attack defenders (low post, high post, iso on the wing, pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop) than Durant. KD’s alleged troubles to get open and receive passes are very real; he may be one of the most brilliant scorers in the league, but against heavy defensive pressure, his touches can be limited. He’s more susceptible to double-teams. His influence can be hindered by encouraging Russell Westbrook to shoot. Dallas simply has more avenues to derail Durant than OKC does to limit Nowitzki, a point which gets lost in the Durant vs. Marion and Nowitzki vs. Ibaka framework.
As far as individual defense goes, I think Marion is perhaps a bit slower than the Mavs would like, but he’ll have to be their best first line of defense against Durant. Stevenson doesn’t have the size, strength, or athleticism to pull off a Tony Allen-like (or even Tony Allen-light) defensive performance, and Jason Kidd isn’t really an option in this series. Corey Brewer could see the court for a few minutes, but Rick Carlisle clearly prefers the rotation regulars. Marion is the most logical choice at this point, even if the speed advantage he surrenders to Durant could be a recurring problem. Still, Marion will make Durant work for every point he gets, and doesn’t often surrender free cuts to the rim nor bite on shot fakes. Marion is excellent at staying down while getting a hand in a shooter’s face — an advantage afforded him by his height and length — and that ability to challenge Durant’s jumper without allowing KD to draw a cheap foul is incredibly important.
Dallas is the better shooting team in this series, which puts OKC at a disadvantage to begin with; in order to win, the Thunder will need to defend like crazy in order to bring the Mavs’ shooting down to a reasonable level, create a considerable advantage on the offensive glass (akin to Chicago’s Game 1 rebounding dominance against Miami on Sunday night), win the turnover battle by a significant margin, or get to the free throw line at an incredible rate. Marion’s defense can help on a number of fronts, as he can limit Durant’s impact on the glass, create turnovers with deflections, and limit Durant’s free throw attempts. KD may still drop 29 a game in this series, but his full impact across the four factors should be diminished if Marion does his job correctly.
Across the sky, Collison won’t be exploited in his attempts to cover Nowitzki, just overwhelmed (Ibaka may be a different story; he’s a strong defender in most contexts, but this matchup is not one of them). He’ll do a serviceable job against Nowitzki, but I see no way for the Thunder to even hedge on this particular weakness, no way to limit Dirk from doing exactly what he wants to do virtually every time he gets the ball in a position to score. Nowitzki will be bound by his own natural misses and errors, but I don’t see any defensive coverage that can rattle Dirk at this point, and no individual who can truly claim an ability to limit him. With Dirk on the floor against the Thunder this season, the Mavs have posted an offensive efficiency of 131.74. Fish in a barrel, my friend. The Western Conference Finals are the fish, the Thunder defenders are the barrel. Fish in a barrel.
Beyond Nowitzki and Durant, Russell Westbrook is the best player in this series, though with the regular season as precedent, I wouldn’t expect him to play like it. On paper, Jason Kidd seems like a horrible cover for Westbrook; the Thunder point man is among the most impressively physical perimeter players in the league, and can run circles around any defender with the misfortune of covering him. Dallas, however, lets Westbrook be. Kidd doesn’t try to go chest-to-chest with him, but backs away, affording Westbrook all the opportunity to give into temptation and fire off his pet pull-up jumper. Westbrook isn’t a horrible shooter, but this is far and away the preferred result of any Thunder possession. Not only does it often result in a low-percentage shot, but it creates a scenario in which Westbrook has to turn down open shots on every single possession** in order to get the ball to Durant or any other Thunder player. That’s tough for any player to resist, and particularly so for one with an occasionally destructive tendency to fire at will.
**This is as true of the Mavs’ man-to-man defense as it is the zone. Regardless of the coverage, Westbrook will be given room.
In reality, this matchup is less about Kidd vs. Westbrook than it is about Westbrook vs. his own decision making, and subsequently Westbrook vs. Kidd and Tyson Chandler. Westbrook will need to be incredibly patient in order to properly initiate the Thunder offense, and the Mavs will attempt to goad him into shooting by going under every screen and playing several feet off of Westbrook when he has control of the ball. If Westbrook chooses to shoot, he’ll halt the Thunder offense, miss more than he makes (Westbrook converted 29 percent of his mid-range jumpers against the Mavs in the regular season), and generate transition opportunities for the Mavs. If he chooses to drive, he’ll have Kidd bothering him along the way and Chandler lying in wait. In the season series, Westbrook converted just 44 percent of his shots at the rim and 29 percent of his shots in the paint when Chandler was on the floor (according to NBA.com’s StatsCube), and TC will continue to aggressively challenge Westbrook’s drives; leaving offensively limited bigs like Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison doesn’t create much of a disadvantage for Dallas, so utilizing Kidd and Chandler as a two-man front against Westbrook is only a logical choice. It may be a bit hyperbolic to say that Westbrook will be neutralized in this series as a result, but he’ll certainly be tested and likely be limited.
If much of Westbrook’s positive impact is taken out of the picture, the advantages held by Nowitzki and the Mavs’ supporting cast (which is more versatile and productive than the Thunder’s crew, even if the difference in efficacy isn’t glaring) become even more vital. That could easily be negated if OKC does particularly well on the offensive glass or gets out into transition frequently, but I see the Mavs taking care of business in both of those regards. The Thunder will naturally get theirs on the break and with second chance points, but not to a degree that will significantly affect the series. Marion, Jason Terry, Peja Stojakovic, and J.J. Barea, on the other hand, seem poised to consistently outscore OKC’s supporting cast thanks to the opportunities granted by Dallas’ offensive system. The Thunder will play much better defense than the Lakers did, but the production and efficiency of the Mavs’ complementary scorers was no fluke.
That’s why I predict that the Mavs will win in six games. The Mavs haven’t won back-to-back series because of hot shooting, but because their commitment to offensive execution in these playoffs has no equal. Contending with their ball movement is a difficult feat, and an incredibly difficult one if Westbrook is side-stepping the offense to pull up for mid-range jumpers. There isn’t a terribly compelling reason why the Thunder will be able to disrupt the most beautifully structured and productive offense remaining in the playoffs, and the strength of the Mavs’ offense should power them through to their second ever NBA Finals appearance, prediction jinx permitting.