I have to keep reminding myself that it is basketball season, its been so long since the Mavericks have played. But its official now; the Mavericks will square off against the Thunder at the AAC on Tuesday, for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Man, its been too long.
So during the Mavericks bye week, I was able to catch a few of the Memphis-OKC games, and watching Game 7, I started to formulate just how each team would match up. Here's a few initial thoughts about the Thunder, what they do, what Dallas needs to watch, and how the two teams need to match up.
Let's start by saying that OKC will have to make some serious adjustments, because the Mavericks are nothing like Memphis. There's a few similarities that can be pointed to, mainly that each has a superstar with a deadly jump shot, but Dallas is a perimeter team while Memphis played as close to the rim as they could. The Grizzlies lacked three point threats, and instead tried to get to the rim. This drives, cuts, and most importantly, pounding the ball inside to Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. The most threes the Grizzlies hit in the series was six (a number surpassed by Dallas in all four games against Los Angeles).
Now, how about the Thunder? Its common knowledge that this is a young, athletic, explosive group of guys. Their undisputed superstar is Kevin Durant. At 6'9", he can do just about anything. He'll spot up, shoot a variety of different shots off the dribble, take the ball to the rack and finish, or even post up. He's capable of slashing back door and throwing down a lob, too, if a defender tries to deny too hard. He's a fantastic players with ridiculous skills. However, he does have some weaknesses that the Mavericks can try to exploit. He struggles sometimes to separate and get the ball in positions he prefers. Memphis's duo of Tony Allen and Shane Battier, both premiere defenders, certainly helped this, but Shawn Marion, DeShawn Stevenson, and possibly Corey Brewer should be able to disturb him as well. Durant is also prone to taking bad shots. He'll still hit them, sometimes, but with the proper pressure and shot defense, there will be some shots that really never have a decent chance. Its impossible to prevent Durant from scoring, but the Mavericks can make him work and hopefully force him into inefficiency.
Pump fakes are another thing to watch for Durant and all the Thunder, but if properly defender, the Mavericks may actually be able to use them to their advantage. Durant will constantly use the pump fake, often in an attempt to draw a foul. That is the worst possible outcome when guarding him, because KD is about as automatic as Dirk is at the line. A pump fake to get the defender to fly by is also a negative outcome, because it allows Durant to step into a shot or get a clean line to the basket. However, a hard contest by a closing defender, who keeps himself in the play by not flying too far by, and possibly another close by a second defender can lead to Durant taking tough jumpers without moving his feet. Several times I saw this in the Memphis series, and each time I viewed it as a success for the Grizzlies defensively. Though Durant may have room to get the shot off, the pump fake takes away his rhythm and momentum and when shooting from 24 feet away, the shot suddenly becomes extremely difficult.
One key area that the Mavericks need to worry about is the offensive glass. Dallas has struggled with rebounding in the past, and doing so against the Thunder will hurt immensely. Nick Collison is extremely skilled at getting position to get the tip or the putback, while Ibaka and Durant can both sky for loose balls. Coaches can stress that everyone must find a man and box out, but the Thunder have one of the best penetrators in the league, Russell Westbrook. He can get to the rim as well as anybody, and when Tyson Chandler or Brenden Haywood have to rotate over to contest the shot, a Thunder will be waiting to clean up the shot.
What about the Mavericks, though? Clearly, Dirk Nowitzki can't be stopped by any human being. However, the Thunder were able to slow Zach Randolph down in the final few games of the series with aggressive doubles and good post defenders. How will Dirk Nowitzki fair against this OKC defense?
Clearly, it won't be as simple as doubling Dirk every time down the court. The Grizzlies had no shooters, while the Mavericks have more than they know what to do with. Scott Brooks and the Thunder coaching staff will no doubt have a variety of creative double teams created especially for Dirk, but its nothing that he hasn't seen before.
The more interesting match ups will be the individual defenders that Dirk will face. Certainly, there are a ton of different players who can and likely will be thrown at the German Wunderkid. There's Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed, big and strong players who have experience, but likely lack the quickness to deal with Dirk when he faces up. There's Nick Collison, a tough and scrappy player who loves to draw the charge, but ultimately just does not seem athletic enough to prevent Dirk from shooting right over the top of him. There's KD and Thabo Sefolosha, who are the short, athletic mold that has troubled Dirk in the past (though Dirk rarely struggles against those players anymore). And then there's the most interesting one of all, Serge Ibaka. Here's a young kid who is one of the few players in the NBA who can actually block Dirk on one of his jump shots. He's tall, explosive, and no pushover in the post. He's too valuable of a weak side shot blocker to permanently assign to chasing Dirk around, but one on one against Dirk should prove to be an very interesting battle. Dirk, of course, has one huge advantage in experience, and it will interesting to see if he can bait Ibaka and earn free throws. Either way, Dirk's going to have to come prepared to face all sorts of different looks, because there's no doubt Oklahoma City is going to be trying everything they can.
Over a thousand words of analysis, and yet I feel as if there is so much more I could say. Feel free to use this thread to break down the Thunder and how they match up with Dallas. It's going to be a wild series, that's for sure. The Lakers bowed out quietly (and pathetically...I'm looking at you, Andrew Bynum), but Oklahoma City will fight, scratch, and claw every last moment. This is going to be fun.