The Dallas Mavericks have won five of six, and they'll look to continue that hot streak when the Oklahoma City Thunder come to visit on March 17. The Thunder are also hot, having won seven of eight, and a win also means a full-season series sweep of the Mavericks while also maintaining pace in the highly competitive Western Conference.
However, to say that this game is in OKC's favor automatically would be a stretch. As bad as Dallas has been this season, they have managed to take the Thunder to overtime twice, on Dec. 27 and Jan. 18. Given how much more one team has in terms of overall talent, that's pretty impressive.
Dallas also has home-court advantage for the fourth and final round, and a rowdy American Airlines Center crowd is sure to be cheering its Mavs on passionately from start to finish. As excellent as the Thunder have been all season long, playing on the road could definitely become a factor.
Moreover, the regular season is entering its final weeks and Dallas is only three games out of the last playoff spot. If certain chips fall into place, they could easily go on a run and clinch it.
Defeating Oklahoma City in the final game of the season series would be a giant step in the right direction, so fans would be wise to tune in to what is sure to be an epic game from start to finish.
Time: Sunday, March 17, 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: Fox Sports Southwest, Fox Sports Oklahoma HD
Records: Oklahoma City Thunder (49-17) vs. Dallas Mavericks (31-34)
Injuries: Jared Cunningham (knee, out), Shawn Marion (calf, day-to-day), Hasheem Thabeet (back, day-to-day), via ESPN
Key Storyline: Thunder Seek Season Series Sweep On Road
Both of these teams are on hot streaks, and it's really anybody's game. Oklahoma City rode a 40-point performance from Kevin Durant en route to a 111-105 overtime victory on Dec. 27, and a 52-point performance from him in another overtime victory, this one 117-114, on Jan. 18.
The team was not able to handily defeat Dallas until Feb. 4, when 24 points and seven assists from Russell Westbrook translated into a 112-91 victory. The season series may be in the Thunder's favor, but the Mavericks have shown that they can indeed keep up with them.
This means that in Round 4, Oklahoma City cannot afford to get cocky. The Mavericks may be on the decline just two years after a championship, but they are still a team that can play a fast-paced game well and keep up with the elite teams.
That said, the Thunder's mantra needs to be all about defense. That alone can slow down this young squad enough that the collective confidence can be rattled and mistakes could be made.
If Dallas cannot fight past a tough defensive attack, then the season sweep should be in the Thunder's bag.
Key Storyline: Serge Ibaka vs. Dirk Nowitzki
When push comes to shove, the Dallas Mavericks' go-to guy is still veteran Dirk Nowitzki. The 34-year-old has spent his entire career with the Mavs and been to 11 All-Star Games, and was the NBA Finals MVP in 2011. This season, the seven-footer is averaging 16.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, and is shooting 44 percent from the field and 41 percent from downtown.
Over his last five games, the man has posted 16.2 points and 9.8 rebounds while making 39 percent of his threes.
He'll be in for a challenging evening against the Thunder, as he will be guarded by an excellent defender in Serge Ibaka. At just 23 years old, the 6'10" blocking machine is turning into a threat on both sides of the floor.
Ibaka is averaging 13.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per contest. Besides his defensive game, he has proven that he can be an interior force on offense and also has a decent jump shot. He has shot 57 percent from the field, ranking fifth in the NBA.
Ibaka has been solid over his last five as well, posting 12.4 points to go with 7.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks and shooting an astounding 65 percent from the field. No matter how you look at it, Nowitzki is going to be in for a long game on both ends of the court.
That means that Nowitzki must turn to a tool that anyone has a hard time slowing down: experience. This man has been in the league for 14 years, and he could use his versatile game to keep Ibaka guessing. From utilizing his jumper to working the post, he has what it takes to win the battle.
Ibaka had better hope that he can read Nowitzki perfectly for this game, otherwise Dallas could end up running the table.
X-Factor: Kevin Martin
Dallas' offense ranks seventh in points per game, and if it gets hot against Oklahoma City, the Thunder must be able to keep up. That means having a spark who can score in bunches, like sixth man Kevin Martin.
Martin has been great as a shooter since coming over from the Houston Rockets in the James Harden trade, averaging 14.3 points per game while shooting an incredible 42.5 percent from long range.
Against Dallas, the shooting needs to be at its best. He has shot just 35 percent from long range over his last five games and while that isn't terrible, it's not what fans have come to expect from him this season.
Martin thus needs to find a way to mix up his offense against Dallas, using a mid-range jumper and interior game on top of his long range one. He has the size at 6'7", 185 pounds to slash to the hoop and draw fouls when necessary, so it isn't as though he'll be venturing completely outside his comfort zone.
So long as he can keep the Mavericks' defense guessing, then the pendulum could swing in the Thunder's favor. Otherwise, the game is going to be incredibly close, not necessarily something either team's fans want.
Predicted Starting Lineups
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Thabo Sefolosha
SF: Kevin Durant
PF: Serge Ibaka
C: Kendrick Perkins
PG: Mike James
SG: O.J. Mayo
SF: Jae Crowder
PF: Dirk Nowitzki
C: Chris Kaman
As much as the Mavericks would love to pull off an upset here, it's not going to happen. The Thunder are too deep and too good to be the victims of a loss against a weak defensive team, and their ability to balance their game on both sides of the floor will give them the ultimate advantage.
Kevin Durant will continue to dominate in the scoring department, scoring 30-plus as Russell Westbrook turns in a performance that reminds everyone why he's the best scoring point guard in the league. Defensively, Serge Ibaka will expose how Dirk Nowitzki is starting to slow down with age.
Dallas will get solid performances from O.J. Mayo and Vince Carter, but that won't be enough against the hard-charging Thunder. A weak offensive attack combined with a great game off the bench from Kevin Martin will hand this game to Oklahoma City, who will take another step toward a return to the NBA Finals.
Oklahoma City Thunder 106, Dallas Mavericks 94