Step one in this redemption season is complete and in the books. The Thunder weathered through an 82-game season relatively unscathed, and came out of it with the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. While the West as a whole was down this season, most of the creme of the NBA’s crop resided at the top of the Western Conference. Golden State bested the ’95-96 Chicago Bulls’ regular season win total record by one game (73-9), and San Antonio registered one of the best regular seasons ever by going 67-15. From there, the second tier of teams in the NBA comes into play. Oklahoma City, Cleveland, and the Los Angeles Clippers all have the ability to win the title, but also have flaws that prevent them from entering into the stratified air where the first tier teams reside.
Step two in the process begins with the Dallas Mavericks. It’s ironic how the Thunder’s past always butts up against its present. In the final two games of the regular season, the Thunder faced off against old rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs have always been like the Thunder’s big brother, and we all know what little brothers want to eventually do to big brothers, which is beat them. Meanwhile, the Lakers were once the apex predator the Thunder wanted to be like during the infancy of their ascension. But the Mavericks were always like the hyper-competitive next door neighbor. Geography and proximity would naturally link them together, but the fact that both were good at the same time added a little sizzle to the rivalry. With Dallas seemingly on the downslide in terms of team success, we may be looking at the final time these two, as currently constructed, are opponents in the playoffs.
Wins in the regular season don’t always paint a clear picture as to how a series will play out. Many variables exist during the season that do not exist during the playoffs. Scheduling, fatigue, and sample size are all factors that come into play during the regular season, but have little to no bearing during the playoffs. But there are always factors within a season series that are highly applicable to the playoff series.
The Thunder swept the season series against the Mavericks 4-0. In the first meeting, the Thunder played their most complete game up to that point in the season, beating Dallas 117-114 without the services of Kevin Durant, who was out with a strained hamstring. Russell Westbrook kept the Mavs at bay in that game, hitting two big jumpers in the final minute of the fourth quarter. In the second meeting, the Mavericks decided to rest most of their starters after playing the previous evening. With the Thunder at full strength against the Mavs’ B-squad, Oklahoma City eventually pulled away in the game to win 108-89. The game was not without drama, though, as Charlie Villanueva and Russell Westbrook were both tossed at various points late in the first half for small skirmishes that erupted in the second quarter. The third meeting of the season featured both teams at full strength. The Thunder took an 11 point lead into the fourth quarter and had to fight tooth and nail to preserve that lead, eventually winning 109-106. The Mavericks had 3 opportunities in the final 10 seconds to tie the game, but fell short of making the shots. In the fourth meeting, the Thunder got out in front early and never looked back, winning 116-103.
- Game 1 – Saturday, 16 April 2016 at 8:30 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
- Game 2 – Monday, 18 April 2016 at 7:00 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
- Game 3 – Thursday, 21 April 2016 at 6:00 PM CST (American Airlines Center, Dallas, TX)
- Game 4 – Saturday, 23 April 2016 at 7:00 PM CST (American Airlines Center, Dallas, TX)
- *Game 5 – Monday, 25 April 2016, TBD (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*
- *Game 6 – Thursday, 28 April 2016, TBD (American Airlines Center, Dallas, TX)*
- *Game 7 – Saturday, 30 April 2016, TBD (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*
* – If Necessary
Probable Starting Line-upsDallas Mavericks
- PG – Deron Williams
- SG – Wes Matthews
- SF – Justin Anderson
- PF – Dirk Nowitzki
- C – Zaza Pachulia
- Reserves – JJ Barea, Devin Harris, Raymond Felton, David Lee, Charlie Villanueva
- PG – Russell Westbrook
- SG – Andre Roberson
- SF – Kevin Durant
- PF – Serge Ibaka
- C – Steven Adams
- Reserves – Dion Waiters, Enes Kanter, Randy Foye, Kyle Singler, Nick Collison
3 Keys to the Series1. JJ Barea’s Health
Barea strained his groin about a week ago and he hasn’t been the same since. He played just 8 minutes in the game in which he strained his groin and then missed two of the Mavs’ last 3 games of the season. In the one game he did play after sustaining the injury, he shot just 2-11 while scoring just 5 points in 27 minutes of action. Barea is probably Dallas’ best offensive weapon outside of Nowitzki. He increases the pace on a team that, because of injuries, has had to play slower throughout the season. They rank 23rd in pace, averaging just 96.4 possessions per 48 minutes. Barea is also adept at getting into the lane and either finding open shooters or taking it to the hole himself. If Barea is not 100%, that will be a huge blow to the Mavericks’ offense throughout the series.2. Small Ball
Without a rim-protecting power forward, Russell Westbrook will likely run a pick and roll with Steven Adams to get the slow-footed Zaza Pachulia out on the perimeter on skates. To counter this, the Mavericks may choose to run small ball lineups with several of their guards and Nowitzki or David Lee as their “big man”. The Thunder may try to use size to their advantage, but may also have to look at the possibility of matching Dallas’ small ball lineup.3. Pace
The Mavericks can score points, but they can also allow points to be scored. They had a -0.3 MOV for the season. In the four games they played, the Thunder averaged 112.5 points per game. The Thunder will look to push the pace while the Mavericks will look to slow it down. If the Thunder get the Mavericks into a track meet, it will definitely be better for Oklahoma City. If the Thunder allow the Mavericks to dictate the pace, they could play into their hands.
Barea’s health – As mentioned above, he is as much a motor in the offense as Nowitzki is. If he is not 100% in this series, the offensive options for the Mavericks go down exponentially.For Oklahoma City:
Nick Collison – Collison has been the model veteran this season, picking up DNP-CDs at times, while also contributing when called upon. In this series, though, against Nowitzki, Collison’s experience may come in handy whenever Ibaka either needs a breather or gets into foul trouble. While Durant will likely play his share of minutes at PF against Nowitzki also, Collison will be important for this 5-8 minutes a game when another defender is needed on Nowitzki.
Thunder in 5 – I’ll be nice and say Thunder in 5, but this could easily be a sweep. The Mavs are a shell of what they were years ago, and late-season injuries to Chandler Parsons, David Lee, and JJ Barea have complicated things that much more for Dallas.