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Mavs Moneyball Staff | April 14, 2016

The ultimate Mavericks-Thunder playoff preview

There once was a team who was picked by everyone to finish at the bottom of the Western Conference. They were a ragtag collection of players recovering from injuries, players who were cast off by other teams and rookies.

But: they also had the NBA's sixth-leading scorer of all time. And so here we are.

This Mavericks team has been fun, they've been frustrating, they've been inexplicable, they've defied expectations. We've lived through #ContractYearRaymondFelton and Wesley Matthews somehow leading the team in minutes played and Dirk Nowitzki's highs and lows and Chandler Parsons taking a next step and Rick Carlisle's mad brilliance and injuries and two rookies saving the season.

Somehow, this unlikely team has fought its way to a sixth seed and a possibly-not-automatic first round exit as they travel up I-35 to face the Oklahoma City Thunder. I still don't know how we're here.

But I know this Mavericks team will give it their all.

- Rebecca Lawson

meeks(Matthew Emmons/USA Today Sports)

BY THE POSITIONS

Point Guard

Do you hear that? The trembling ground beneath your feat? That's no Point God, but Point GODZILLA.

The point guard spot will be dominated by the monstrosity known as Russell Westbrook, who just rammed the best season of his career forcibly down the league's throat. His 23.5/7.8/10.4 points, rebounds and assists per game line looks like a LeBron James stat line.

He shot about 45 percent from the floor and it would have been even better if he weren't jacking threes at a 29 percent clip. Westbrook has never approached an average 3-point shooting season but he loves taking dagger threes off the bounce -- he just doesn't make them that much. His passing is outstanding, as is his defense except when he gets torched gambling for a highlight steal. The catch is when Westbrook wins his gamble, he's going the other way looking to tear the rim off the backboard. It's hard to quantify how much Westbrook seemingly changes the flow of a game. The Thunder could be lifeless through a middling first quarter then *BANG* a Westbrook steal and jam sends the home crowd into a frenzy and the away team into a timeout wondering about all the regrets in their life.

Everything about his game is loud and explosive. Everything he does seemingly ends up on a highlight reel. You feel Westbrook on the court perhaps more than any other player in the NBA. He's just a boisterous presence. You can use that against him, of course -- send Westbrook flying out of position on defense with some misdirection and ball-fakes, entice him into those 3-pointers he loves to take but can't make.

It's about the only chance the Mavericks have of slowing him down. Opposite Westbrook in the starting lineup is Deron Williams, whose game is about as quiet as Westbrook's is loud. Williams is the enigma of the Mavericks starting five -- is he...good? He's certainly at least average. He looks above average but his numbers are decidedly mediocre  in spots. Williams is frustrating. He's been the best clutch shooter in the entire league (43-of-85 from the floor overall, 17-of-33 from three in the clutch), has the most clutch 3-pointers made in the league, yet his traditional numbers look incredibly plain and the Mavs ripped off a season-saving win streak in his absence. It can be argued J.J. BAREA was the Mavs best point guard this season.

Speaking of, the backups is where Dallas has the advantage. Westbrook will probably be on the court for at least 40 minutes a game this series (as long as the games are close which...). Raymond Felton has been statistically mediocre but oddly the Mavericks would be worse without him. Devin Harris alternates between disappointing and essential at the flip of a switch. And as just mentioned, Barea has been amazing, putting up his best career season on what is probably the least offensively talented Mavs team he has ever been on. Basketball is weird.

The Thunder counter with Randy Foye who is objectively NOT GOOD in big, bright neon lights but will inevitably have a 20-point game in this series and Cameron Payne, the rookie, who seems good enough but has rookie'd himself out of the rotation. (See! It's not just Carlisle!)

Shooting guard

We've probably run out of superlatives to describe Wesley Matthews' incredible recovery from a torn Achilles. He started opening night after just enduring the worst NBA injury about eight months prior. He's led the Mavs in minutes, he's been a vocal leader, a tough dude and all that stuff.

The truth, though, is that Matthews hasn't been very good. His shooting numbers are by far a career low and his defense has slipped a tad trying to navigate screens.

This is all understandable of course -- the dude tore his Achilles! He should have been rehabbing in October, not guarding power forwards on opening night. The other truth is, we all know Matthews wasn't going to realistically resemble his Portland self till at least next season. Even with all that, the Mavericks net rating with him off the floor is -3.8 according to NBA.com's stats page. That's worse than Dirk. Matthews means something to this team.

Luckily there have been been glimpses -- the post-up scoring against the Clippers, the nova-scorching night in Washington, the clutch threes in a playoff clinching win in Salt Lake City. We've seen just enough of the old Wes to hope that perhaps he'll show up for a couple games this series. He'll be tasked with guarding either Westbrook or Kevin Durant and he'll probably end up spending time on both of them. He's the Mavs only reliable perimeter defender, despite the injury. He'll have his work cut out for him.

Opposite, the Thunder have been trying to find a guard to pair with Westbrook ever since the Harden trade to no avail -- and that's no different this season. Andre Roberson starts but I'm not even sure he's a real player. He plays good defense, I'm told. He cannot play offense I'm told. He will probably score 15 points in one of these games as I have a cardiac emergency. Dion Waiters is supposed to be that guy and he certainly looks like it when he hits his spot up threes, but he's been too inconsistent in that department. Anthony Morrow can shoot threes and do nothing else but he'll get some minutes to spread the floor around Durant and Westbrook. This is definitely the least scary matchup for the Mavs.

Small forward

It's amazing how quiet Kevin Durant's season is. He's having an MVP-level campaign, wrapping up 50 percent or better shooting from the floor for the fourth straight year. He's still as deadly as ever from deep. He's averaging more than eight rebounds a game and five assists. He plays defense at multiple positions, tasked with guarding the rim at times as a small ball four. All the while, his pending free agency hangs like a dark cloud over the entire team. Despite all of that, Durant's season has been overshadowed by the Warriors history-making, the Kobe Bryant farewell tour and the old Spurs rising from the grave again to somehow be better than they've ever been.

Durant is awesome. Every metric, stat and eyeball test tells you that. He dominates the game with a silky-smoothness unlike anyone not named Stephen Curry AND is an impactful defender. As we watch the small ball revolution take over the league, Durant has been such a perfect small ball forward in the game that it was like he was created in the Weapon X program for small ball mutants.

The Mavs have ... well, they have Justin Anderson! And ... that's it? Yep. Justin Anderson is the only healthy small forward the Mavs have on the roster. WELCOME TO THE SHOW ROOKIE! This was supposed to be a potential coming out party for Chandler Parsons, but knee surgery (albeit a less serious one) will once again have him missing the playoffs. Anderson is bouncy, energetic, and mistake prone, but he's also the only dude on the roster that can do this or this or that thing in the video below. Durant will torch him at times, but Anderson might chase him down for a block, too.

To fill the gap, the Mavs will roll out a couple of the 85 point guards apparently on their roster and push Matthews up a spot. This is where the Mavs depth is really out of whack because the key to going small in the modern NBA is going small without actually going small. Golden State's "small ball" lineup features a 6'4 point guard, a 6'7 shooting guard and two wings at least 6'6 or better. The Thunder can do the same, pushing Durant to the four at 6'10 and not really being at a size disadvantage. The Mavs will rotate guards into forwards and need to somehow not be swallowed up on defense and the glass by the Thunder's hugely superior wings. Kyle Singler would be the best small forward on the Mavs right now. Yeesh.

Power forward

The Alpha and the Omega. Dawn and dusk. All roads with the Mavericks lead to Dirk Nowitzki. Somehow, at age 37, Dirk is still the barometer for Mavericks success. Their success depends on his. When Dirk is on the floor, the Mavericks are a scrappy, competitive playoff team. With him off it, they are a hopeless burning pile of dumpster garbage.

Despite trying for years to make Nowitzki the second-best player on the team, the entire franchise's hopes and dreams fall on his shoulders. Any noticeable slippage from Dirk's normal production would turn the Mavericks into a disaster.

Yet, he keeps it up. He's still Dirk goddamn Nowitzki.

Sure, he isn't as steady and consistent as he once was (what the hell is up with Dirk and December's now?) but he's still the best floor spacing big in the game, warping defenses and having the most court "gravity" of any player in the league (again, not named Stephen Curry). Simply standing on the floor behind the 3-point arc turns the Mavericks point guards from has-beens to steady contributors. It turns Salah Mejri into a competent rim-running big. Dirk is amazing.

He's still a load in the post, a pick and pop wiz and a great crunch-time scorer. The Thunder will have their hands full once again.

After getting embarrassed by Dirk in 2011, Serge Ibaka has been much better against him in the ensuing years. Ibaka continues to develop into one of the best under-the-radar glue guys in the league -- he's the Thunder's best defender and a rare elite rim-protecting, floor-spacing big that is basically an NBA unicorn right now. Ibaka will stay glued to Dirk's hip for most of the series and it is up to the Mavericks to engineer good looks for him as Dirk's mobility is probably at an all-time low.

After last season's disastrous Mavs-Rockets playoff series, the Thunder will no doubt target Dirk ruthlessly on defense. Multiple pick-and-rolls will be run at Dirk, whether that's with Ibaka or Steven Adams. Enes Kanter will probably see some burn up front opposite Dirk and will try to punish Dirk just as much as Dirk will do the same to him. Ibaka will be a load this series -- the Mavs don't have anyone to really match his athleticism and physicality.

However, it all ends with Dirk. How Dirk goes, the Mavericks will follow. Once more unto the breach.

Center

Bless Zaza Pachulia's big ol' heart. The consolation "prize" from the DeAndre Jordan fiasco, Pachulia has been far and away more impressive than he had any right to be when the Mavs basically picked him up for free from the Bucks.

Alas, he is done. Cooked. Finished. There's an alternate reality where Pachulia is the league's best backup big, providing excellent production when DeAndre Jordan takes a breather or needs to be off the floor for free throw purposes. That reality is not here and it never will be.

The Mavs took a career backup and stretched him as much as he could, milked him for all he's worth. After a double-double start to the season that saw Pachulia's smart defense and great passing launch him to the precipice of the NBA All-Star starting lineup, Pachulia has predictably fallen apart as he blasted by his career highs in minutes played. Pachulia was never meant for this.

He's shown some spunk in the last handful of games, but ultimately he'll be a liability for the Mavs. He's a terrible finisher at the rim, which forces the Mavs to go 4-on-5 when they're on offense as defenses absolutely abandon Pachulia to key in on Dirk and the guards. Pachulia still has value if the Mavs need some strength on the boards for stretches but if he's counted on to be a 25-30 minute a night guy, the Thunder will run the Mavs off the floor.

Luckily, the Mavericks have Salah Mejri, which is a statement I figured I'd only be making from under an overpass with a needle stuck in my arm before the season started. Mejri is a 29-year-old rookie from Tunisia but he is an incredible rim protector. Seriously. Mejri can get pushed around thanks to his small frame, but his timing in the pick and roll and off defensive rotations is incredible for someone so new to the NBA game. If the Mavericks can avoid putting him on Enes Kanter, Mejri can definitely make an impact hovering around the rim and bail out the Mavs overmatched backcourt.

For the Thunder, Steven Adams has turned into a Tyson Chandler-lite, developing some great chemistry with Westbrook in the pick and roll. He's turned himself into an excellent rim-diver and finisher, hits just enough free throws and is a plus on defense. He's just a solid player and the type that will give the Mavs fits if they focus too much on Westbrook and Durant.

Kanter is probably the best offensive backup big in the league, a perfect spot for him despite his gaudy contract. He absolutely roasts backup bigs and while his effort on defense has improved, he's still a minus defender and someone the Mavs have to attack as he will undoubtedly be lighting them up for double-doubles off the bench.

With Pachulia most likely ineffective, David Lee, if healthy, should see some nice minutes. He's probably one of the bigger surprises for the Mavs, showing the same efficient, pick and roll offensive game he's always had while not being the absolute worst on defense. He's not great on that end, but he's not as bad as his reputation has stated in previous stops. He is a useful player for 15 or 20 minutes and the Mavs will need his offense.

Head coach

Rick Carlisle wouldn't give Justin Anderson any burn when the Mavericks were desperate for any dose of athleticism. He played weird mind games with Chandler Parsons during Parsons' most productive stretch of his career. He played three point guards at the same time when only two would do. He benched Salah Mejri after two average games that came after two great games.

Rick Carlisle is also a goddamn warlock and could probably get a team of Dirk Nowitzki and four hamsters to the playoffs. We are not worthy.

As much as the Dallas fan base (which includes me) bitches about Carlisle, there is no doubt in my mind the Mavericks are lucky to have him and would be a wasteland without him. Look at this roster. No really, look at it. Raymond Felton, J.J. Barea, Salah Mejri, David Lee, Devin Harris. All top rotation players. In the playoffs.

It's probably his greatest achievement yet, at least on par with 2011. His fingerprints are on every Mavericks game and he pulls and pushes just enough to get all the parts working at just the right level. The playoffs are also where he really shines.

His strengths with in-game adjustments and tactics thrive in the playoffs, where small tweaks are crucial when playing the same team potentially seven games in a row. This will especially show off this year as Carlisle goes up against a rookie NBA coach. Good luck, Billy.

That's perhaps a slight to Billy Donovan, but he hasn't been bad. Despite his first year in the NBA and incorporating his culture and schemes to a Thunder team that knew nothing other than Scott Brooks, Donovan has kept the Thunder humming nicely.

There are signs of a more modern NBA offense with this group and he finally started staggering Durant and Westbrook's minutes. He's shown signs. But he's also a rookie coach. Going against Rick Carlisle. This is perhaps the Mavericks greatest advantage this series and really, the one hope they have in pulling off any sort of surprise.

- Josh Bowe

meeks(Ronald Martinez/Getty Sports)

BY THE NUMBERS

0-4

The Mavericks played OKC four times over the course of the season and lost every time. It says a lot about the terror Golden State and, to a lesser extent, the Spurs inspire in teams this year that this seems like a pretty great outcome for the Mavs and perhaps their best chance to take a series to six or even seven games.

But while the Mavericks might be very unlikely to win this series, regular season match-ups are notoriously poor predictors for the postseason, and the hope for a long series certainly isn't unreasonable. Last night's game against San Antonio may not have been Rick Carlisle's finest hour, but we've seen before that when he is at his best, his team can put the fear of God Dirk in the hearts of champions.

7.3 vs. -0.3

What looks a little scarier for the Mavericks is the team's point differential, typically a slightly better indicator of a team's playoff strength. OKC beats opponents by an average of 7.3 points per game. That may look unimpressive below Golden State and San Antonio's double-digit differentials, but it's quite good, better than anyone in the Eastern Conference and quite a bit better than the Mavericks, who thanks to some big losses, have a negative point differential despite their winning record.

14

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook contributed approximately 14 wins EACH for the Thunder this season (via win shares). That's nearly 30 of the team's 55 wins from just two players. OKC got to 55 wins and the third seed in huge part because Durant and Westbrook dragged guys like Dion Waiters across the finish line and somehow ended the season with the second best offense in the league.

Contrast this with Dallas, a team that has relied on a broad range of contributors across the season (you may remember how much trouble MMB staff had picking a team MVP this year) and that has started to gel around solid team defense. Which leads us to ...

97

Small sample size alert, but since pulling out of its March tailspin with a win over Denver, Dallas has allowed opponents fewer than 97 points per 100 possessions, second best in the league.

If Dallas can use its newfound defensive prowess to slow down Durant and Westbrook, OKC doesn't have many other options. And while that's probably not good enough for four wins, it may get the Mavs two or three.

3,561

Dirk Nowitzki has scored 3,561 points in the playoffs over the course of his career on just 1,179 field goals in 140 games. These numbers are impressive on their own, but Dirk's scoring total and its place in history (he's the 18th leading playoff scorer of all time) is even more impressive when you consider than his 140 playoff games don't even crack the top 50 playoff games played. He's just that good.

- Kate Crawford

meeks(Matthew Emmons/USA Today Sports)

3 BIG QUESTIONS

1. Can the Mavericks keep the Thunder small?

Oklahoma City is a team built for the big man wars of the 2000s, one that is now trying to keep up with the quickly changing NBA landscape that has turned small ball from fad to necessity. As the Thunder were rising to power, it was the twin towers in Los Angeles -- Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum with Lamar Odom behind them -- who toppled OKC's first playoff appearance. Thinking that was the quickest path to a championship as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka got bigger and better, Oklahoma City stockpiled big men, filling their roster with talented centers. But nobody saw the Warriors coming.

Without Chandler Parsons, the Mavericks' small ball approach lacks a definite punch, but the alternative is worse. The Thunder start Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams, bring Enes Kanter in as the sixth man, and have two more perfectly usable big men in Nick Collison and Mitch McGary just waiting for opportunities at the end of the bench. Oklahoma City is built traditionally, and so a traditional lineup will kill you. A small ball lineup may do the same, but then you're at least playing into the confusion the Thunder have in trying to manage a jumble of guards -- Randy Foye, Dion Waiters, Anthony Morrow and Kyle Singler -- without any clearly sticking out from the pack.

Dallas' most traditional lineup uses Zaza Pachulia at the five, but Pachulia has extreme limitations, declining dramatically since the start of the season. David Lee has had good stretches playing center and Salah Mejri could be a serious difference maker, as he was several times in the regular season. Still, the Maverick big men won't be able to match Oklahoma City if they try to go straight up against them.

The Mavericks already love the three-guard lineup and they've tried Dirk Nowitzki at center a few times throughout the year. When Parsons went out, it wasn't clear who could replace him when the team went small, but Justin Anderson has emerged much more polished than what we saw from him early in the season. Would a lineup with Dirk, Anderson, Wesley Matthews and a couple point guards work? It might not. But with Rick Carlisle needing to dominating the coaching battle more than ever in an attempt to make up for the talent gap, that's the type of lineup that's worth trying to see if it can keep the Thunder from playing the way they were built to play.

2. How long can Deron Williams be Deron Williams?

The Mavericks weren't sure if Williams would return this season when he missed eight games with a sports hernia. Instead, he showed up as big as anyone on the team in a playoffs-clinching win against the Utah Jazz, scoring 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting with six assists thrown in for good measure..

Dallas has seen that version of Williams from time to time this season. He shows up in bursts, triggering flashbacks from his Utah days, but never stays for too long. All season, he had a tendency to show up late in fourth quarters and overtimes - but that only helps if Dallas can actually hang around long enough in these coming games.

Without Williams soaking up the scoring deficiency left by Parsons' absence, there's a chance none of the  games in this series will be competitive late. So that's asking a lot from Williams, who is shooting 41 percent from the field and 34 percent from behind the arc this season. But the Mavericks wouldn't ask if they had any other choices.

3. Will this series be fun?

Everyone understands the Mavericks' plight. They weren't supposed to make the playoffs at all this season, and they're missing their most versatile player for the season. But here they are, playing in the first round for the third straight season after falling just short in 2013.

Those previous two series juxtapose perfectly. In 2014, the Mavericks unexpectedly pushed San Antonio to seven games, giving the eventual champions as big of a test as they could muster. The following season, we saw Rajon Rondo quit on the team in Game 2, Parsons go down with a severe knee injury and the hated Rockets coast to an easy five-game series win.

Nobody has major expectations for this team to make any sort of a playoff run. But if there's only a week or two left this season, an enjoyable end to the year doesn't seem like it's too much to ask.

- Tim Cato

meeks(Mark D. Smith/USA Today Sports)

THE FULL SCHEDULE

Game 1 Saturday, April 16, 8:30 p.m., ESPN Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Game 2 Monday, April 18, 7 p.m., TNT Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Game 3 Thursday, April 21, 6 p.m., TNT American Airlines Center, Dallas, Texas
Game 4 Saturday, April 23, 7 p.m., ESPN American Airlines Center, Dallas, Texas
Game 5 (if necessary) Monday, April 25, TBD, TBD Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Game 6 (if necessary) Thursday, April 28, TBD, TBD American Airlines Center, Dallas, Texas
Game 7 (if necessary) Saturday, April 30, TBD, TNT Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Producer: Tim Cato | Editors: Tim Cato and Rebecca Lawson | Title Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

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