Get ready for an old-fashioned Western, starring two of the NBA’s best players and promising to feature some shootouts as the Oklahoma City Thunder try to dominate at the OKC Corral and the Dallas Mavericks try to make the youthful opposition skedaddle back north empty-handed and heartbroken.
While the Thunder have stormed onto the national scene and become a NBA championship contender during the 2011 NBA Playoffs, the new kids on the block shouldn’t forget that playoff runs are old-hat for the Mavericks, a veteran-laden team with plenty of postseason experience.
Superstars Stepping Into the Spotlight
Every star needs a big break and Oklahoma City’s 22-year-old Kevin Durant definitely has his this year with Kobe Bryant unavailable to assume his leading role in the conference finals and the No. 1-seeded San Antonio Spurs falling to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. Durant, whose 27.7 points per game led the NBA during the regular season, has continued to develop into one of the best players in the NBA and will try to erase memories of a forgetful appearance in last year’s playoffs.
The Durantula had a remarkably tough playoff series against the Lakers last season, shooting an ice-cold 35 percent from the field and an abysmal 28.6 percent from the three-point line. After averaging 30.1 PPG in the 2009-10 regular season, Durant’s scoring dipped to 25.0 PPG in the playoffs. Ron Artest’s swarming, physical defense along with some double-teams played a large role in his performance but superstars are expected to increase production during the playoffs.
This season Durant has played with more confidence and his scoring average has increased to 28.9 PPG in the playoffs and he’s playing efficiently, shooting 45.1 percent from the field, 38 percent from the three-point line, and he's the playoff leader in free throws attempted and converted.
Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki is no stranger to the playoffs, superstardom or the big screen—this is his third appearance in the Western Conference Finals. However, this has been somewhat of a comeback role for Nowitzki in the playoffs.
Nowitzki, 32, averaged 23.0 PPG, his lowest output in seven seasons and his 34.3 minutes per game were the fewest he’s averaged since his rookie season. His 73 games played were also the lowest number of games played since his rookie year.
But like a true professional, Nowitzki, has proceeded to the forefront when his team needs him most, unafraid to take center stage in the playoffs.
Nowitzki’s scoring averaged has increased to 26.5 PPG, his rebounding total has risen from 7.0 to 8.4 RPG. He’s shooting a whopping 60 percent from the three-point line and 90 percent from the free-throw line and he has played with a sense of urgency to bring the Mavericks their first NBA title.
The Thunder will count on the league’s scoring champ to put on a show and use his talent to put the ball in the basket from all over the court. Like the Lakers’ Artest, Mavericks will probably send Deshawn Stevenson, a physical, hard-nosed defender, to rattle Durant and disrupt the Thunder’s offense.
Likewise, the Mavericks should expect Nowitzki to attack the Thunder’s post defenders, drawing the Thunder’s frontcourt to the perimeter where he’s been a sharpshooter and taking the ball to rim to draw fouls and create free throw opportunities.
Experience vs. Talent
Like a flash of lightning, the Thunder have struck the league by surprise. Although Oklahoma City’s success is not a total surprise—the team features back-to-back NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant, budding All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook and made the playoffs last year—a conference finals appearance for the youngest team in the playoffs seemed unlikely with the championship-rich and No. 1 seeded San Antonio Spurs presumably waiting in the conference semifinals.
Oklahoma City has seized the opportunity for nationwide exposure and taken advantage of the most fortunate of circumstances as the Spurs and the Lakers have already been eliminated.
Talent and athletic ability favor the Thunder. Besides having the youngest team still in the playoffs, the best scorer in the game and a Derrick Rose clone at point guard, Oklahoma City has a much faster team than the Mavs. The Thunder were able to wear out the Grizzlies in a Game Four triple-overtime win and the Game Seven clincher.
The Mavericks are jam-packed with playoff veterans like Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion and they have wiles to match the fresh legs of the Thunder.
If the Thunder can jump out to early leads, they might be able to literally run away with the series. In crunch time of close games though, the Mavericks should have a steadier hand. They stole a couple of games against the Lakers in the final minutes and the Thunder allowed the Grizzlies to hang around with lapses during the second half of games.
Thunder head coach Scott Brooks and Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle have plenty in common.
Both have played on championship teams, Brooks with the Houston Rockets and Carlisle with the Boston Celtics. Both have been honored as NBA Coach of the Year, Carlisle in 2002 and Brooks in 2010. Both could be considered players’ coaches, letting their players play in the style they are accustomed to playing.
But Carlisle, an East Coast guy from New York, and Brooks, a West Coast guy from California, also share plenty of differences.
Mavs owner Mark Cuban can probably smell, taste, feel and hear that championship trophy calling out to him and Carlisle has lots of pressure to win with his roster of experienced players, while Brooks’ young Thunder continue to overachieve and exceed expectations in a very competitive Western Conference.
Both teams are deep and each team will rely on super-subs, Jason Terry for the Mavs and James Harden for the Thunder.
Will it be too much too soon for the newbies of the Thunder or too little too late for the Mavs, perennial contenders in the Western Conference?
This Western showcase might not achieve the ratings of typical Hollywood fare—read Lakers/Celtics/Miami Heat—but aficionados will note that a great Western film shouldn’t be judged by how many viewers decide to watch it, but by the action, drama and great moments it features.