After a close loss to the Miami Heat on Christmas Day, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be back on their home turf tonight to face the Dallas Mavericks. The circumstances are different for OKC this time around. Rather than extend a lengthy winning streak or the lead in a conference or division race, the Thunder are seeking to avoid a third straight loss.
Even more ironic is that not too long ago, the team was on a 12-game winning streak. Today, their short losing streak has seen them make a small drop from tops in the league to second, behind the red-hot Los Angeles Clippers. Needless to say, they'll be wanting to get back to their winning ways tonight.
The Mavericks are in a similar position. Even with Dirk Nowitzki back in the lineup, the team is on a three-game losing streak and searching to get out of its funk.
That's easier said than done against the Thunder, a very deep and talented team that have only continued to improve the last three years. They made the NBA Finals last year for a reason, and are playing like anything less than a championship is unacceptable.
For the young and inexperienced Mavericks, this could spell trouble.
Time: Thursday, December 27, 8 p.m. EST
Records: Dallas Mavericks (12-16) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (21-6)
Betting Line: Not available as of Thursday, December 27, 8:45 a.m. EST
Injuries: O.J. Mayo (illness, expected to play)
Key Storyline: Can Mavericks Pull Off Upset in OKC?
The Mavericks are on a three-game losing streak, but there could be light at the end of the tunnel. Star forward Dirk Nowitzki is back in the lineup following knee surgery, and his scoring and leadership will be a great help in the team's quest to get back into contention.
However, Nowitzki will be coming off the bench tonight and in the near future. The 34-year-old is on a minutes limit and Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle is in no hurry to rush his star back.
Nowitzki will need to make the most of his minutes tonight against the Thunder. Dallas needs a spark, and the 7'0" German can provide it. He led them to a championship just two seasons ago, and has averaged 22.9 points and 8.3 rebounds for his career.
That isn't to say that Nowitzki needs to completely take control on offense and sink every one of his shots when he's on the floor. He just needs to help keep the game close tonight if the Mavericks are to pull off an upset.
In doing so, the team can rally behind him and avoid extending its losing streak to four games, and thus prolong Oklahoma City's to three.
Key Matchup: O.J. Mayo vs. Thabo Sefolosha
I bring you a tale of two 2-guards, both whose approaches to the game could not be more different. As a result, their battle tonight could easily decide the game.
On Dallas' end, there is O.J. Mayo. At age 25, he is a natural shooter and has been the leader of the Mavs' offense in Nowitzki's absence. Despite his youth and history of attitude issues, he has gotten the job done as the team's starting shooting guard.
Mayo has not only averaged 19.3 points per game on the season, but also ranks second in three-point percentage at 49 and is fourth in three-pointers made. He is Dallas' offensive catalyst, and him having a good scoring night could be just enough to give his team the upset victory over Oklahoma City.
Enter Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder's defensive mastermind. Not only does he have more size than Mayo at 6'7" (Mayo is 6'4"), but is one of the best pests in the NBA.
Unlike most shooting guards, Sefolosha does not care about scoring points, averaging just under seven per game for the season. On offense, his best skill is his three-point shooting, and he has shot 41 percent from long range for the season.
Defensively, he is one of the best halfcourt defenders a coach can ask for. He is good for a steal a game, and will lock down his man from start to finish.
Sefolosha must do that with Mayo tonight, as the former USC Trojan is the key to Dallas scoring points while Nowitzki is still on a minutes limit. Once Mayo is taken out of the game, then the Mavericks' ability to win becomes all the more difficult.
Thus, Mayo must be willing to try and get past Sefolosha's defense and not rely so much on his jump shot. Otherwise, he and his teammates are sunk.
X-Factor: Chris Kaman
With Nowitzki on a minutes limit and Mayo guarded by Sefolosha, the Mavericks must rely on Kaman to be even more consistent on offense. He has great size for a center at 7'0", 265 pounds, and has career marks of 12 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.
Kaman can also stretch the floor, as his mid-range jump shot is better than most big men's. Seeing as how he'll be matched up against the slow-footed Kendrick Perkins, he must be willing to utilize this skill every so often tonight.
Granted, Perkins is going to do all he can to keep Kaman in the low-post, but even that is not a guarantee to work. The Thunder center has height at 6'10", but his hefty 270-pound frame slows him down and could come back to bite him against a bigger and more versatile center in Kaman.
Long story short, Kaman needs to be aggressive tonight. This means using his jump shot as well as his presence in the paint, and not hesitating to go after any rebounds. Despite his size and position, he is only averaging 13.7 points and 6.2 rebounds on the season.
If Kaman can demand the ball and execute all opportunities in the event of Nowitzki hitting his limit early and Mayo struggling, then the Mavericks will at least be able to keep the game close.
If not, then their losing streak hitting four games will become all but a certainty.
If this game were in Dallas, I'd say that the Mavericks could pull off the upset. Unfortunately for them, it's in Oklahoma City's Chesapeake Energy Arena, home to some of the rowdiest fans in the NBA.
As a result, the Thunder will get back on the winning track and send the Mavericks to a fourth straight loss. Even worse, the Mavericks won't do a very good job of keeping the game close.
Oklahoma City will simply dominate from start to finish. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will be making their shots at a freakishly accurate rate, and Kevin Martin will be back to his usual deadly self after an off-performance against the Miami Heat on Christmas. Serge Ibaka, per usual, will be a beast on defense, as will Thabo Sefolosha.
Speaking of Sefolosha, his battle with O.J. Mayo will be a dogfight from beginning to end. Mayo will make his fair share of shots, but not before missing quite a few and finding a way to adjust to Sefolosha's pesky D. He'll end up leading Dallas in scoring for the night, albeit not with a very flattering field-goal percentage.
Dirk Nowitzki will shine in his limited minutes, but his overall presence will be missed down the stretch. Dallas will lose in a borderline blowout, and it will be forced to play patiently until its star is back at full strength.
Oklahoma City Thunder 109, Dallas Mavericks 96
All statistics in this article are accurate as of December 26, 2012