A pair of hot teams face off on national television tonight, as the Oklahoma City Thunder visit Dallas to take on the Mavericks. Top-ranked Oklahoma City enters the game on a five-game winning streak, while underwhelming Dallas has won four in a row. Both teams have faced each other during the last two postseasons, so the rivalry effect will be in full swing.
It is the second time that these teams meet this season, with Oklahoma City having won an overtime thriller at Chesapeake Energy Arena back on December 27. The team should expect just as intense of a battle tonight. The Mavericks may not be in the playoff picture, but their defeating of both the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets during their current hot streak means that the Thunder have a giant target on their back.
The fact that this game is on the national stage will only add fuel to the fire. Dallas is playing at home, where they have gone 11-7, and the team's rowdy fans will be at full volume from start to finish. A five-game winning streak sets teams apart from the rest, and the Mavericks need plenty of momentum to help them climb the Western Conference ladder.
But the question presents itself. Will they be able to fight past the tough attack of the Thunder?
Time: Friday, January 18th, 9:30 p.m. EST
TV: ESPN, Fox Sports Oklahoma HD, Fox Sports Southwest
Records: Oklahoma City Thunder (31-8) vs. Dallas Mavericks (17-23)
Betting Line: Oklahoma City (-4.5), Dallas (+4.5)
Injuries: Nick Collison (ankle, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can Mavericks Ride Out Thunder-storm?
It's hard not to feel bad for the Dallas Mavericks. They aren't even two full seasons removed from a championship, and they are already on the cusp of a rebuilding phase. However, though the team has underachieved this year, they cannot be counted out against the red-hot Oklahoma City Thunder.
The one time that both teams faced off earlier in this season, on December 27, Oklahoma City pulled off a 111-105 overtime victory thanks to a 40-point effort from Kevin Durant, plus 19 points and 17 boards from Serge Ibaka. The Thunder may have won, but not before turning on the afterburners and staging a comeback.
Dallas actually had an 80-73 lead entering the fourth quarter, but they were no match for fiery Oklahoma City when it mattered.
That said, the revenge factor is shining bright in this game. Not only was Dallas swept out of the playoffs by Oklahoma City last season (in the first round, no less), but their chance at an upset victory was snatched away in December.
For Round 2, the stage is a bit different. Dallas has home court advantage, and a rowdy group of fans supporting them. It's going to be another high-scoring game—maybe even with some on-court drama—and Dallas is going to pull out every single stop in hopes of extending its winning streak to five.
At that point, maybe it will be time to start considering them a playoff dark horse.
Key Matchup: Shawn Marion vs. Kevin Durant
Defensively speaking, the Mavericks have one job tonight: slow down Kevin Durant. The three-time scoring champion was the MVP of the teams' first game against each other this season, and taking his offense out of the equation will be a tough task.
Durant currently ranks third in the NBA with 28.7 points per game, trailing only Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. He has shot an astounding 52.5 percent from the field and 40 percent from long range, but that has not been the story of his game this season.
Durant has also had an extra bounce in his step on defense, posting 7.5 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. In Oklahoma City's quest to return to the NBA Finals, he appears committed to being a complete player and not just a scorer.
Just how great a scorer he is will be tested tonight, when Shawn Marion is guarding him for most of the game. Marion is two inches shorter than Durant, at 6'7", and is also 10 years older at 34. However, though he is no longer the explosive scorer he was in his days with the Phoenix Suns, Marion is still one of the game's best pests.
He has averaged 8.2 rebounds and just under a steal per game, but his defense goes far beyond that. When it comes to staying on his man, Marion is a master. His footwork is excellent, and he just refuses to be faked out by fancy dribbling, ankle breakers, or any other tricks.
Durant is young, but plays with the poise of a veteran. He has seen Marion's defense before, and must do what he has done each time he has faced it. He must refuse to be intimidated and score a good number of points in spite of Marion sticking to him like glue.
With another great scoring performance, Durant will immediately put the Thunder in a position to win, in spite of both Marion's defense and a rambunctious Dallas crowd. Both parties will do all they can to stop him, but just one key basket from Durant can be enough to take the wind out of Dallas' sails. In this case, they must make sure that they have the wind at their backs at all times.
X-Factor: Serge Ibaka
Dallas is a team that likes to play a fast offense, which means that Oklahoma City's defense cannot get cocky and be unprepared like it was the last time that these teams met. This means that Serge Ibaka needs to be in full defensive mode, putting an end to any ideas Dallas may have about defeating the Thunder via a faster pace.
Ibaka has built off of last year's breakout campaign with an even stronger performance in 2012-13. Always a strong defensive player, he has added a reliable offensive game to his repertoire as well.
To go along with his 8.3 rebounds and 2.9 blocks, Ibaka has also posted 14 points per game. However, his offense has been something of a non-factor in the Thunder's last five games, two of which Ibaka missed with an injury.
He has averaged 2.7 blocks over that stretch, but just 5.7 points and 5.3 rebounds. That cannot be the case tonight, as Oklahoma City needs him to be great in the team's battle for a sixth straight win.
He is likely going to be matched up with an aging Dirk Nowtizki, who has averaged 13.7 points and 5.4 rebounds in 13 games since coming back from knee surgery. The German seven-footer is Dallas' star player and team leader, but definitely does not have the same defensive punch in his game. Whereas the man used to be a solid rebounder, he has clearly had a hard time keeping up in the paint since his return.
Ibaka needs to take full advantage of this and be an even greater force on defense than he has all season. This means going after every rebound, not being afraid to get physical in going for a block, and just being an absolute beast on the defensive side.
Offensively, he must demand the ball. The Thunder cannot win on the backs of Durant and Russell Westbrook alone, and Ibaka has proven this season that he can be the third head of the team's offensive monster.
By refusing to back down on both sides of the floor, Ibaka can immediately swing the pendulum in Oklahoma City's favor and put to rest any ideas Dallas that may have about a rally.
The Mavericks will put up one hell of an effort tonight, reveling in the passion of their fans and stopping at nothing to bring home the victory. Unfortunately, this will be the game in which their winning streak comes to an end.
Oklahoma City has proven—both in last year's playoffs and throughout this season—that they have Dallas' number, and such will be the case in a near-blowout tonight. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will both score in double figures, and Dallas will struggle to find a go-to guy outside of Dirk Nowitzki. Both he and O.J. Mayo will have good scoring nights, but not good enough to swing the game in Dallas' favor.
Defensively, look for Serge Ibaka to have a game that reestablishes him as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He will reach double figures in rebounds, have at least two blocks, and also chip in anywhere from 10-15 points as he works his way back from his injury. Even Shawn Marion will look at Ibaka's defense and be shocked at how effective it is.
Dallas will also have homecourt advantage, and this will help them go on the occasional scoring run. Mayo will sink some key threes, and Vince Carter will bring back plenty of memories with a phenomenal dunk.
Unfortunately, it will not be enough. The Thunder are just too young, deep and talented for the Mavericks to handle at this point, and the score by the final buzzer will reflect that.
Final Score Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 107, Dallas Mavericks 95
All statistics in this article are accurate as of Thursday, January 17, 2013