We had ourselves a little get-together with JA Sherman over at Welcome To Loud City in preparation for the first round playoff series between these two Western Conference foes. For my (much shorter) answers to Sherman's questions, click here! Many thanks to an awesome SBNation hoops blog over there at WTLC.
How much do OKC fans take this Dallas series personally? Over the last three years, the Mavs have always had to Thunder's number. Do fans feel like this series is OKC's chance to dethrone their I-35 big brother?
It is true that the Mavericks have been a hurdle the Thunder have sought to get over for quite some time. There have been a number of games, both in the regular season and the playoffs, where it looked like the Thunder were primed for wins only to see the veteran Mavs club catch them in the end and walk out of the building with a win. They weren't crafty or sneaky or anything like that. They simply had/have a great sense of the pacing of a game and know that there will always be opportunities that present themselves and it is the team's job to be prepared to capitalize.
I think Thunder fans take the rivalry personally because it has been this way for so long, but unlike some rivalries, I don't think it brings with it any animosity or ill will. In fact, what impressed me most about the Mavs run last year was the way that your players and coach actually were the first to defend the Thunder youngsters when the media started to get overly critical of Durant and Westbrook. I distinctly remember Shawn Marion standing up for Russell Westbrook when the media got it in their minds that Russ was the Thunder's own arsenic, and I thought that was such a noble thing on the part of Marion. He didn't need to do that, but the Mavs valued the competitive nature of OKC enough that he felt it necessary. It was honestly one of my favorite moments in a series that was pretty tough to watch.
In that vein, the "big brother-little brother" attribute is appropriate, because little brother Thunder just wants another crack at big brother Maverick to show they are worthy of pursuing the crown. The great thing about the dynamic is that even when little brother gets bigger, stronger, and knows they are better, big brother can still say, "I've got a few more lessons to teach you."
Tyson Chandler was a big reason Russell Westbrook wasn't dominant against the Mavs last year. Do you expect Westbrook to have a monster series?
The brilliance of Chandler is not merely that he's a great man defender or help defender, but in the way he orchestrates the entire teams' defense from the back line. The strategy that the Mavs have applied in defending Westbrook is not to prevent him from shooting, but to allow him to take as many shots as he wants, as long as they are shots the Mavs want him to take. Westbrook wants to either attack the rim or shoot the 15-17 footer in the extended lane. The Mavs obviously don't want him taking those, so Chandler would help the defense direct Westbroook so that he was ever so slightly outside of his comfort zone. Maybe it was to the right or to the left, maybe it was even too close. The result though was that Westbrook thought he was getting wide open looks, but he ended up missing a very high percentage of them and was not nearly as effective as he could have been.
So now Chandler is gone, how did Westbrook do this season? If you look at his shooting statistics and more specifically the shot dispersion, you can see that they are still employing the same strategy, and he is still struggling to adjust to it. So while the loss of Tyson hurts some, it is obvious to me that the Mavs still know how to engage an effective defense against Westbrook with the players they have.
I believe this is going to be the key match-up in this series, because nobody on the Mavericks can run with Westbrook or stay in front of him. If Westbrook can show better patience in letting the offense develop and look off 'open' shots that aren't in his scoring zones, I don't think the Mavericks have an answer for him. However, if Westbrook continues to struggle in this area, this series is going to be extremely close because it will allow the Mavs to once again gang up on Durant.
Keep it simple: still scared of Dirk?
Who is this 'Dirk' you speak of?
Here is what does not scare me - Dirk Nowitzki in quarters one through three. I don't know if Holger has had Dirk doing some toe push-ups or something in order to bring some spring to his step, but in the games I've watched him in this season it does seem like Dirk did not have the same level of quickness. When the Thunder forced him to do a lot of running, he had nothing left in his jump shot elevation and struggled from the field. The Thunder need to apply as much pressure as they can to the Dallas defense early.
What DOES scare me is if Dallas figures out a way to hang around during those first three quarters and can go into the 4th with the game still competitive. If Dallas and Dirk can get to that particular point in the game, everything changes. We know that OKC has struggled in closing out games in the past when they simply could not match Dallas' ability to generate open shots when it mattered most. They tried to speed up while the game slowed down. The greatest fear I have is that OKC gives Dirk an opportunity to beat them. We watched Dirk do it to them in that pivotal Game 4 last season, and I believe he can do it again.
Dirk has sort of reached the 'Michael Jordan in '98' phase of his career. He can't dominate for the full stretch, but if you give Dirk the opportunity to beat you in the end, he knows how to do it. OKC has to avoid that type of end-game situation if they want to prevail.