Dallas Mavericks-Oklahoma City tips in just a few hours, and let's be honest: its been way too long. Yesterday, though, during the long wait, I was able to catch up with J.A. Sherman of Welcome to Loud City, and we exchanged what we saw as the keys to beating our respective teams. Here's the three points I gave J.A. (sadly much shorter than I would have liked; big thanks to him for taking his breakdown a step further), and below are the three he detailed for the Thunder. He does a great job breaking it down.
Settle down, read up, and get ready for tonight. This should be fun.
J.A.: Greetings, Mavericks fans, it is a pleasure to join you. I have the privilege of writing at Welcome to Loud City, the OKC Thunder blog here on SB Nation. I had previously contributed a Q&A here at Mavs Moneyball, where I was still writing under my pseudonym "Dogburt." Raise your hand if you anticipated seeing the San Antonio Spurs in this round.
We at Loud City have witnessed the advent of a truly remarkable team and have been rewarded with a plentitude of public accolades as for how to build a franchise the "right way." Of course, you guys don't care about any of that. You guys care about how to beat the Thunder. I can help you with that too. Like it or not, the Mavs are now the "elder statesmen" of the playoffs, and that knowledge and experience will be essential to toppling the young upstarts who live down I-35.
In no particular order, here are three possibly counter-intuitive keys to beating the OKC Thunder.
1. Play "Inside-Out."
In round one, the Thunder defeated the Denver Nuggets, 4-1. The Nuggets had a post player in Nene that could bang with the best, and gave Kendrick Perkins all he could handle. However, Nene's offensive repertoire was limited and so Denver often would give the Brazilian big man a token look but then go back to their drive and dish guard play. In the one game where the Nuggets DID work their offense through Nene, he went 9-11 and scored 22 points. It was the only game where the Nuggets offense looked truly fluid. In the rest of the games, despite winning Game Four, their entire offense was predicated on their guard and swing position play. By not continuing to use Nene, the Nuggets became one-dimensional and the Thunder controlled them defensively.
In round two, the Thunder defeated the Grizzlies, 4-3. The Grizzlies DID have a superior inside game, but did not have an outside game to match. The games where the Grizzlies played their best though was when they were able to make a few outside shots to at least give their interior big men - Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol - space to work. Even the presence of a single guy, be it O.J. Mayo or Mike Conley, was enough to pull out the Thunder guards so that they could not collapse on the post players. When the perimeter guys made shots, the Thunder defenders had to move much more than they preferred and the result was more open shots for both the perimeter AND the interior.
Now, in the Conference Finals, we have a Mavericks team that is excellent at the perimeter but based on round one, we can see that the Thunder can stay with perimeter players. It is only when there is a serious post-threat that the Thunder defense starts to waver. The key is not merely in the presence of a post player, but in how that player moves. When the big men stand still, it gives Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison ample time to set their feat, read the player, and body up. It is only when those big men start to move around, via high screens or baseline picks, that the Thunder's defensive weakness is truly exposed. Dallas is not a great post-team, but they do have pieces. They can attack this Thunder weakness by moving both Tyson Chandler and Dirk Nowitzki around, back and forth, in and out. If Dallas can make the Thunder big men move, they have a chance to completely blow apart the Thunder defense.
2. Speed it up.
As I'm sure we're all aware, the Thunder are young and spry while the Mavericks are old and stodgy (expect to hear some form of that summation at least 10,000 times over the next two weeks). Based on this fact alone, it is reasonable to conclude that an up and down game played at a high pace would work in the Thunder's favor. I have to tell you, not so.
The strange reason for this has a name: Russell Westbrook.
There is a sliver in the enigma that is Russell Westbrook, and it is on this sliver that a smart team like the Mavericks can control the outcome. On the one side of the coin we have: "Russ under control." This player attacks the fast break when it is there, finds the open men, and scores at the rim. "Under control Russ" is the place where Dallas does not want to be, because this particular player plays with the savvy of a Chris Paul but still retains all the athleticism and vigor of a Derrick Rose. It is the player that threw out a triple-double in Game Seven.
The other side of the coin is "Russ-rage." Or, alternatively, "hero mode," as some call it, or my favorite term of endearment, it is when Westbrook goes "full honey badger." It is a mode when he stops caring about what is going on around him and only seeks to attack because it seems like the only alternative left. Getting Westbrook to shift from 3rd gear to overdrive bodes well for any opposing team because of the havoc it inflicts on the Thunder. However, it is also an easy problem to remedy because Coach Scott Brooks can simply remove Westbrook from the game.
So the place where the Mavs want Westbrook to be is on the edge of the coin - not quite full bore, but not quite in control either. It is the best chance to keep Westbrook in the game and make negative plays that allow the Mavs to stay competitive. The easiest way to get Westbrook there is to speed the game up. Westbrook is fast, but he does not play fast. He cannot yet make those fast-twitch decisions that Jason Kidd was born making, but he will still try, and that's what hurts the Thunder the most.
Aside from Westbrook's evolving fundamentals and decision-making, he also occasionally craves one dose of arsenic - the challenge of the individual match-up. Westbrook does not like to be beaten in head-to-head match-ups. The easiest example is in Game Four of the first round, his infamous "30 for 30" game, where he was trying to keep pace with the Nuggets' speedy guards. In this Conference Finals, if he feels like Jason Kidd or Jason Terry are starting to get to the best of him, that's the moment when he is going to start to press his individual game more than he should. If the Mavs can lay that trap for him so that he spends his game balancing on the abyss of recklessness, the Mavs will do well to marginalize Westbrook's effectiveness.
3. Recognize the real OKC Thunder (dis) advantage.
When you consider the Thunder, you immediately think of the face of the franchise, Kevin Durant. In him you see a glorious shot-maker who scores more easily than just about anybody in the league. With Durant, you would think that the Thunder possess the single best solution for closing out games; Durant should be a Closer.
However, Durant isn't that, at least not yet. To be sure, he has had some exceptional 4th quarters this season, most notably his Game Five close-out against the Nuggets. However, the one whole present in Durant's game is the one that becomes most important in anxiety-filled playoff contests - he cannot always generate his own shot.
To see this problem most clearly, all you have to do is compare Durant's game with Dirk's. Earlier in Dirk's career, he played a game similar to what we see in Durant now - he wanted to face up to the basket and shoot open jumpers. It was not till much later in Dirk's career that he added a lethal variety of post moves, including the one that is just about unstoppable - the one where he posts up at the top of the key. Durant does not have any of this in his game. Yet.
Because Durant does not have these "go-to" moves, it makes the Thunder offense go extremely stale in the 4th quarter. Durant has to continue to work out of ISO plays and screens instead of calling for the ball 15 feet away and going to work. As a result, the team ends up looking rather lost, and many teams, the Nuggets and Grizzlies notably recent, have come back on the Thunder in the 4th quarter.
The Mavericks are in my opinion the most 4th quarter-efficient team in the league right now, and it is precisely because Dirk has those 2-3 go-to moves that cannot be stopped. Everything else works out of his ability to get to those spots and go to work. I remembered watching the 4th quarter of some of those Laker games and remarking to myself that Dirk and the Mavs simply do not make mistakes in the 4th, and that the Thunder would do well to study their performances. If Dirk is somehow a future version of what Durant is to become, we will see the difference between present and future in how the two approach the 4th quarter.
Therein lies the true formula for victory - as long as the Mavericks can stay close through three quarters, the 4th is theirs to own, as well as the series.