Friday night, the Dallas Mavericks (17-23) play host to Oklahoma City Thunder (31-8), currently the best team in the Western conference. This will be the second nationally televised game of the week for the Mavericks, as they play the "late" game on ESPN with a start time of 8:30 central time.
Dallas is currently riding a season-best four game win streak. The offense has looked solid and the defense, at times, has been bordering on excellent. For the first time this season, fans have hope that Dallas might be able to make a run at a playoff spot, with just over half the season remaining in the schedule.
Meanwhile, the Thunder have won five straight and seven out of their last eight. OKC has been dominating teams as of late, with the exception of a close win against Portland. Lead by the talented trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder will provide a stiff test for the resurgent Mavericks.
The previous match up on December 27th saw Dallas fall in overtime 111-105, as Dirk was still working his way back into playing shape. Kevin Durant scored 40 while Darren Collison had one of his best games of the season, scoring 32.
With Dirk returning to form, tonight's game should be quite entertaining. The key match up between Dirk and the OKC power forward, whether it's DPOY candidate Serge Ibaka or Nick Collison, will be fantastic. Both players guard Dirk exceptionally well, with Serge using his power and length to bother Nowitzki while Collison uses his hand-to-hand fighting tactics to get up close and personal to keep Dirk from getting comfortable. Dirk will probably see little time on either player defensively and will probably be tasked with keeping an eye on Kendrick Perkins early.
The point guard battle between old UCLA teammates Collison and Russell Westbrook should be fun. Collison out played his former teammate in the previous match up, as Westbrook shot 7 for 20 from the field. Westbrook is possibly the league's strongest point guard, so Collison will have his hands full. Hopefully he suffers no lingering effects from being benched in the final minutes of the Wednesday Rocket win.
O.J. Mayo will be guarded by defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha. Mayo has had a string of excellent games after a rough December run. Seeing how he fairs against the strong team defense of the Thunder will be worth keeping an eye on. Kevin Martin will also see significant time off the bench and he is capable of putting up points in a hurry. Dallas needs a big game from Mayo on both sides of the ball if they hope to come out with a win.
Containing all-universe forward Kevin Durant will be incredibly important for Dallas. Shawn Marion will get first crack at keeping him in check, but expect to see Dahntay Jones, Vince Carter, and Jae Crowder see time on him as well. One doesn't stop the best scoring forward in the game, rather, Dallas has to try to make his life difficult.
Kaman and Brand will see most of the time at the center position. Due to cross match ups I expect both to see time on Ibaka on defense, while being guarded by Kendrick Perkins on offense. This latter match up is one Dallas must exploit in the limited time Perkins is on the floor. Kaman needs to attack instead of settling for his jumper and Brand simply needs to continue to confidently take the good shots he's presented with. On defense, keeping Ibaka and Collison off the offensive boards will be huge.
Carlisle has called this winning streak "fools gold". He might be right, but a win against one of the best teams in the league would push that notion aside. Dallas lost the previous game against OKC despite leading late in the game. I'd love to see the same kind of fight from Dallas that they've shown since the Kings game. Dallas can win this one, and with a little luck, they just might.