Wednesday night the Oklahoma City Thunder (3-2) play host to the Dallas Mavericks (3-3) in Wichita KS. Dallas, coming off a much-needed win Monday against the New Orleans Hornets, hopes build off the win by continuing to monitor turnovers and team defense, while addressing some concerns in rebounding and team field goal percentage.
Compared to previous pre-season opponents, the Thunder had a relatively tame off season. Not many moves are needed when your team makes the NBA Finals, boasts a perenial MVP candidate, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and potentially 4 All-Stars. The off season started with a bang as Perry Jones III, who was widely considered a top 5 prospect for much of the year, managed to fall all the way to the Thunder at pick 28 out of concerns for his knee and perceived issues with his approach to basketball (his motor). Sam Presti also picked up a former lottery pick (number 2 over all) in Hasheem Thabeet to ride the pine on the Thunder's deep bench. The GM also managed to lock up evolving power forward Serge Ibaka to a reasonable deal, considering his mean skills and age. The Thunder also had four players participate in the summer Olympics; Durant, Westbrook and Harden played for the US and Ibaka played for Spain.
So how do you improve as a team that made the NBA finals in convincing fashion? That they failed to knock off the Heat is hardly a mark against them; Lebron James, love him or hate him, finally evolved to the overwhelming force we knew he could be. A summer of Olympic play with the best on the planet is bound to rub off on Durant, Westbrook, and Harden. Ibaka oddly did not see many minutes with Spain, but playing along side and practicing against one of the best big men of a generation in Pau Gasol certainly can't hurt. The return of Eric Maynor from ACL surgery, the steady play of Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha, the mean mugging and moving screens from Kendrick Perkins... and this doesn't even touch on some of their talented, but less-heralded bench pieces that rarely see the floor. The Thunder are talented, deep, and ready to make another run at the NBA finals.
As to how the Thunder match up with Dallas in what will be the Thunder's final pre-season game, that's hard to say. It will be the third pre-season game in four nights for OKC, which is probably rare among pre-season schedules. I wouldn't be surprised if Coach Scott Brooks severely limited the minutes of his rotation players. Then again, the Thunder don't kick off the season until November 1st; eight days is a lot of time off.
Dallas will be heading into this game looking to correct some issues which arose in Monday's win. Though the team managed to get turnovers under control, posting a pre-season low of 10, team rebounding was abysmal; the Mavs were outrebounded 62-40. Part of it can be attributed to not having Chris Kaman, but when Vince Carter is the team's second leading rebounder, there are problems to address. Size is an obvious concern against a team as potentially big as the Thunder, but rebounding is also about positioning and effort. As Josh Bowe pointed out on twitter, there was a lot of standing around Monday and Carlisle was none too pleased.
Hopefully Elton Brand can step up his level of play. In post game comments to reporters Monday he mentioned what he was brought in to do (back up Dirk and spell Kaman) versus what he is actually doing in terms of starting at center in an undersized line up. Derren Collison also needs to be better. While he's been pretty good in terms of managing games and getting assists, he was also brought to Dallas because of his scoring as well as his passing abilities. He'll likely never again play in a "Devil May Care" offense like he did in New Orleans, where he shot selection wasn't questioned. But he can shoot with confidence, attack the lane, and be a vital threat in the Dallas offense. In a snarky post earlier in the preseason I listed O.J. Mayo as a darkhorse for player most likely to drive me crazy and he's shooting up my rankings as preseason progresses. The talent is there but the mental aspect of the game comes and goes. Mayo must clean up his defense in order to be a positive factor for Dallas. It's nice to see Roddy play games, even if he's not changing the game much while he's in. Chris Kaman may be out these last two pre-season games.
One more pre-season contest follows tonight's game in Wichita. The preseason has been a challenge to say the least, but with so many roster pieces to fit in and injuries to deal with, its best if we do not read into the game results too much. There's a lot to improve upon, but the middle tier in the Western conference is very much in flux. While it's very easy to see the negative in some of these more frustrating pre-season games, it's best to try to take the long view.
**Game Time is 7:00pm Central time
***After publication, new came out that in addition to the known scratches of Dirk and Kaman, Marion and Carter will not be suiting up for Dallas as well.