The Two Man Game’s Official Dallas Mavericks Versus Oklahoma City Thunder Official Western Conference Quarterfinals Preview for the Official 2011-2012 Official NBA Post-Season
No series in this year’s playoffs better illustrates the gulf between winning and winnable; the Dallas Mavericks begin their postseason journey against a familiar foe, and although they hold the potential for a hugely significant upset, there is an auspicious lack of logical explanation as to why the series might actually unfold along those terms. Based on the evidence we have, we can’t write the Mavs off completely, and yet the Thunder are simply too good to not be penciled in for the second round on the basis of their far steadier — and noticeably more superior — play on both ends of the court. The playoffs always bring the potential for a reset and subsequent upset, but we can’t rightly expect either without even the slightest justification.
There’s reason to think that the Mavs might be competitive in this series, but we lack the magic bullet that could throw any predictions over the top. There’s a chorus for good reason; “Oklahoma City in six,” is the most reasonable outcome at this point, although there’s a distinct possibility of this series breaking in virtually any which way. We shouldn’t be surprised to see the Mavs push this to seven or lose in four; there are too many variables at work to have a good feel for how either team might play over the course of this series, leaving us with questions on questions and OKC’s far more convincing regular season exploits.
Russell Westbrook and Scott Brook are the targets of a truly daunting amount of criticism, but make no mistake: it’s Dallas that enters this series as the unreliable entity that could spiral out of control at any moment. The Mavs may not have a ball-handler as unpredictable as Westbrook and don’t have the same alleged x-and-o deficit that supposedly plagues the Thunder, but Dallas has struggled to put together quarters of successful play on either end — much less a game against an elite opponent. Or, y’know, seven of ‘em.
Dallas’ offense was and is a mess, and although the structure and consistency of a playoff series could potentially help the Mavs find their bearings, they still need to put together a string of cohesive performances before they can even remotely be trusted. With James’ Harden’s absence and some inevitable end-of-season letdown, the Thunder have an alibi. We’ve seen the heights of their potential — a place of productivity and efficiency that the Mavericks can’t even hope to touch at this stage — and know that they ache to return to that place. Westbrook and Kevin Durant are brutally fierce competitors, wanting of little more than to rain fire and brimstone on the D/FW metroplex and sleep soundly on a bed of ashes. They know what they’re capable of, and they know what happened a season ago. All Oklahoma City is tasked with is tapping back into that discovered magic; Harden’s health can’t completely be taken for granted considering the violence of the hit he suffered, but otherwise the Thunder are merely calling back to an elite foundation that they crafted for themselves.
Dallas can’t say the same — at least in regard to their performance with this particular core in this particular season. Tyson Chandler is gone and so is the precedent; without the benefit of season-to-season rotational stability, we’re left guessing as to what these Mavs might be capable of, and still trying to understand how the loss of Chandler, J.J. Barea, DeShawn Stevenson, and Peja Stojakovic might fundamentally change the season’s result. The disarray of the regular season offers little in the way of explanatory evidence; through up and down and ebb and flow, all Dallas has done is effectively table judgment for the playoffs. They haven’t proven themselves as a stable offensive team, nor a consistent defensive one. They’re indisputable champions, but it’s unclear whether their gold has already begun to tarnish.
It was mentioned briefly (and vaguely) above, but is worth hashing out in greater detail: the postseason affords the Mavs with not only the possibility for rest, but a chance to maximize the impact of Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki.
Carlisle is a wonderful strategist, but a chess player can’t exactly build an incremental attack when the rules and conditions of the game are constantly changing. As great as he is in adapting on the fly, Carlisle is a coach that thrives with the opportunity for thorough preparation; he’s wonderful at identifying and exploiting weakness, and the breathless pace of the now-completed regular season offered him little opportunity for such. His real technique comes out in the playoffs, when lineup manipulation is not only at a premium, but more functional and consistent.
As for Nowitzki: never is having an unguardable player more valuable than in a slugfest of a series. Brooks and his staff can pore over tape and rifle through various defensive coverages and techniques, but they’ll be in no better shape to defend Nowitzki than they were a season ago, when he systematically wiped the floor with every defender thrown his way. Nowitzki was operating on a special plane of existence then, and though the Thunder defenders will enter this series as a statistically superior team and more learned in the way of Nowitzki’s fakes, it’s difficult to phase the ethereal. The Thunder are still just as likely to fall for Nowitzki’s wide assortment of dekes and stunts, but if nothing else, this series provides an experimental ground. Our now-testable hypothesis: Nowitzki played at a level beyond even his usual postseason excellence last season, and was so thoroughly in the zone that even OKC’s cast of capable defenders (Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison, et al) couldn’t pull him out. As of now, Nowitzki looks in-rhythm, but mortal; might the matchup advantage he poses be enough to return him to that same transcendence? Or was last year’s performance so exceptional that he’s doomed to merely be great this time around, even as his team needs something more?
A few intermittent thoughts:
- Harden is a complete unknown in this series, and if the Mavericks are going to really make a go of this, their efforts will likely be predicated the fact that he’s still feeling his way back into the game after his unbelievable season was derailed by blunt force trauma. If Harden struggles a bit, Jason Kidd is theoretically opened up to roam a bit more on defense — either away from Harden, or from Thabo Sefolosha — while Delonte West and Shawn Marion draw primary defensive assignments against Westbrook and Durant respectively. Put another way: if Harden returns to the lineup and plays as he has all season, I don’t see how Dallas pulls out this series. If he’s forced to play his way back into a form, that could give Dallas a crucial window.
- Considering that the Thunder rank last in the league in turnover rate, the three-guard looks that Carlisle has employed more regularly in the final weeks of the season could prove instrumental. Live-ball turnovers are an incredibly valuable source of easy offense, and the more quickly Dallas can transition from forcing turnovers to running the break — as they would by virtue of increasing their number of ball-handlers on the court — the better.
- It’s good news for all that Brandan Wright is set to be a regular part of Dallas’ rotation in this series, but consider this: while Brendan Haywood has been on the floor against the Thunder this season, OKC has managed to score at a dismally low rate of 84.5 points per 100 possessions. The sample size is obviously quite small, and Haywood was remarkably bad against the Thunder last season, but I wonder if there might be some sliver of truth in that data that speaks to his utility in this series.
- Can the Mavericks again turn Kendrick Perkins into an offensive liability? If so, and if the Thunder go small to compensate — as they often have this season — can Durant effectively defend Nowitzki?
- Just in case you’ve managed to convince yourself otherwise: the Thunder are an elite team no matter how they’ve played in their last 14 games, Durant is one of the league’s finest, Westbrook is a bad-shooting month away from high efficiency, and the Thunder bench — while not tremendously helpful in terms of scoring — fills in the gaps beautifully to complete a top-notch outfit. If Dallas does manage to create problems for OKC in this series, it won’t be because they’re the better team; it’ll be because Nowitzki manages to stabilize the offense with elite scoring, the defense completely renews its focus, and Carlisle gets the better of Brooks. There are other parts of the dynamic that would need to be accounted for, but those are the three swings that would seem to put the Mavs in the midst of something beyond a competitive series.
- Kidd has played relatively well of late, and although his style and production have been completely sustainable, I think most Mavericks fans are right to wonder if this kind of performance can really last. If not, West and Jason Terry should have their hands full; the Maverick offense isn’t overly reliant on one ball-handler in particular to orchestrate its affairs, but Kidd does a lot of seemingly simple things that keep the offense flowing in cadence.
There’s no certainty in echoing “Thunder in six,” and yet that seems the only option available. So let’s make it official: Thunder in six. It’s not the only possible outcome, but when sifting through all of them, it seems the most likely. The Mavericks seem too good to be swept, but too inconsistent to win. They have the ability to compete and sadly seem likely to lose a few close games. They’ll be in this series until they’re ousted, and don’t let the fact that I don’t see this thing going seven serve as some kind of competitive indictment.
A few matchup advantages do not an upset make; Dallas has claim to a few specific points of attack, but there’s so little reason to believe in their performance this season beyond the value of rolling the dice. The Mavericks will have a chance in a series they’re not likely to win, and considering all that has transpired since last summer — the release of key piece after key piece, the lockout’s destructive influence, Nowitzki’s inexplicable struggles, and everything in the mire surrounding Lamar Odom — that’s not a bad position to be in at all.
Data from NBA.com was used in this post.