The Dallas Mavericks are in the playoffs! We mentioned that, right?
After losing 10 of 12 games less than a month ago, a duct-taped lineup managed to sneak back into the postseason mix, and so our Mavs will draw the Oklahoma City Thunder in round one. Undoubtedly, the Thunder will be the heavy, heavy favorites, but guess what? Mavs Moneyball has the secret plan to pull the upset. All Dallas needs to do is follow these five easy steps.
STEP ONE: Draft Stephen Cur-
Ok, I guess they can't do this one. Hold on, let's try again.
STEP ONE: Start Chandler Parsons at power forw-
Oh, wait ... never mind ...
STEP ONE: ...take care of the rock?
If you haven't caught the sarcasm, there is no "easy" plan to beat the Thunder. They are a great team, with arguably two of the five best players in the league, and every major basketball pundit is going to pick OKC in this series (several will pick them in a sweep, probably).
However, OKC isn't perfect, and there are a few areas in which Dallas actually has the advantage. Perhaps the most prominent advantage is in the turnover comparison. Dallas ended the season with the second lowest turnover rate in the NBA (that's number of turnovers per 100 possessions), while the Thunder struggled at times in this regard, finishing at 24th out of the 30 NBA teams. The only playoff squad with a worse turnover rate was the underachieving eighth seed Rockets.
If Dallas can avoid costly miscues, the benefit will be twofold: first, it could give them the greater share of offensive possessions, and secondly, it will help contain OKC's dynamic transition playmakers, who can turn a steal or block into a dunk in a flash. Nothing will get Russell Westbrook or the Oklahoma home crowd going quicker than a full court sprint into a highlight-reel slam.
STEP TWO: Keep the slow pace
It's no secret that a big factor in the Mavs' late season turnaround was the decision by coach Rick Carlisle to slow the game down, and try to grind things out. This is probably a good idea against the Thunder, who have the best offense in the world outside the Bay Area. To put it bluntly, if Dallas tries to get in a shootout with this team, they will be toast.
It won't be easy, but Carlisle can at least try to mitigate the athleticism and efficiency of the Durant-Westbrook combo by sticking with the grind-it-out style. OKC only had eight games where both teams scored under 100 points, but they were 3-5 in those games (Dallas, meanwhile, was 14-7). They were also 14-15 in games where both teams scored under 110 points, which was the Thunder's season average.
STEP THREE: Rebound the damn ball
My hope is Rick Carlisle just puts Justin Anderson in there and tells him "go get the ball." Maybe the biggest obstacle for Dallas will be stopping the Thunder's league-best offensive rebound barrage. Steven Adams and Enes Kanter are mountains of men and have been wrecking opponents all season in the paint. Slowing the game down and reducing turnovers won't mean all that much if OKC is racking up second and third chance points, so Zaza, Simba, and even Dirk are going to need to make this a priority.
Anderson's six-and-a-half rebound in 26 minute average over the final nine games (when he was inserted into the starting lineup) was hugely important for a Dallas team that has been in the bottom half of the league in boards for a long time. His explosive leaping ability and aggressive mentality when it comes to snatching the ball at the highest point possible is a unique skill on this club, and one could be an X-factor, assuming Rick Carlisle decides to keep playing the rookie.
STEP FOUR: Stop giving role players open looks from three
Dion Waiters must love playing Dallas. In his four games against Dallas, Waiters went 2-of-4, 3-of-6, 3-of-6 and 4-of-6 from deep. If you watched those games, you probably noticed a lot of those shots were contested. Also hurting Dallas was Anthony Morrow (4-of-8 from three in two games), Randy Foye (2-of-5 in his only game), and Serge Ibaka (6-of-12 in four games, despite making just 32 percent of his triples on the season). Even Andre Roberson and Cameron Payne had games where they burned Dallas.
Durant and Westbrook are going to be paid a lot of attention, and rightfully so, but the Thunder generated the fifth most corner threes in the NBA (h/t to Royce Young here), which was way more than they ever managed under Scott Brooks. Good teams know that short corner three is the second highest value shot on the court. OKC is not exactly known for a lot of ball movement, but the Westbrook attack-and-kick action is near unstoppable. There's a reason he finished second in the league in assists despite his "score first" rep. Quality perimeter rotations will be paramount.
STEP FIVE: Make OKC play all 48 minutes
If you'll forgive the cliche, it's worth pointing out that the Thunder actually led the league in losses after entering the fourth quarter with a lead. Let's not blow that stat out of proportion (for one thing, it means actually having the lead a lot in the fourth), but it is indicative of OKC's occasional struggle with focus and consistency. Despite the playoff experience of their big three, Oklahoma City is a fairly young team, and they have a first-year coach at the helm.
Dallas, meanwhile, is a veteran bunch with one of the game's most accomplished coaches. In theory, this should be an advantage. There will be runs in this series(there are always runs), and Dallas will surely see a few big deficits. But, staying the course and keeping things within arm's reach could enable the Mavs to steal a game late, if they're ready for the moment. Following this blueprint is the Mavericks' best chance to upset the Thunder.