The Oklahoma City Thunder will face off tonight in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals versus the Dallas Mavericks. The Thunder are coming off a grueling seven game series versus the Memphis Grizzlies, while the Dallas Mavericks after sweeping the defending champion Lakers haven't played in nine days.
Keep reading as I preview the key matchups and show why the Thunder will beat the Mavs in seven games.
If the Thunder have any shot at winning, it will be due to the play of third-year point guard Russell Westbrook. Westbrook has had his ups and downs these playoffs and was heavily criticized last series for taking more shots than Kevin Durant and not passing to his teammates when he's struggling with his shot. Westbrook's game relies on his athleticism and top-flight speed. The key for him is to be more of a floor general.
Jason Kidd is in his late 30's, and while still an elite rebounding guard, Westbrook presents a favorable matchup. Westbrook with his speed, length and anticipation should be able to D up Kidd and lock him down. Kidd is still one of the most creative passers in the game today, and the entire Mavs offense revolves around Kidd's ability to find open shooters. By pressuring Kidd and hounding him, Westbrook will be able to slow down the Mavericks offense and hopefully be able to pressure the passing lanes enough to create turnovers.
In Game 7 versus the Grizz, Westbrook was at his best and finished with only 14 points, but with 10 rebounds and 14 assists. Westbrook needs to keep the Mavericks defense off balance and drive the lane frequently looking for points in the paint or setting up his teammates rather than settling for long jumpers.
If he does this, I give Westbrook the clear edge over Kidd.
Both the Thunder and Mavs have elite scorers and matchup nightmares in Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant.
Nowitzki, a true seven footer, can score from anywhere on the floor and is perhaps the best shooting big man of all time. If I was Oklahoma City, I wouldn't be concerned about slowing down Dirk, he is bound to get his points, but neutralizing other parts of the potent Dallas offense.
The Thunder will throw various defenders at Dirk such as Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Durant and etc. The goal for defending Dirk should be to make him work as hard as he can for his points much like the Thunder did to Zach Randolph in the previous series.
For Durant, with his length and quick release can shoot over pretty much anyone. Shawn Marion will start off on Durant, and I think the Thunder need to use the Westbrook/Durant pick-and-roll. In Game 7, it was enormously effective and Durant was able to generate multiple dunks from it. Durant should focus on getting to the line early and often if his shot is off or use his stellar mid-range game to generate points. The Thunder need Durant to be dominant if they have a shot versus Dallas.
At the trade deadline when the Thunder acquired center Kendrick Perkins from Boston, I have believed this changed the entire playoffs. It sealed Boston's fate—they would not advance to the Finals without Perkins—and it made the Oklahoma City Thunder a true title contender.
Ibaka is still only 21 years old, but one of the best weak side shot-blocking big men in the entire NBA. Perkins and Ibaka is a formidable front line and will pressure Dirk. Tyson Chandler starts at center for Dallas, and while not much of an offense threat, he had a lot of success versus Los Angeles when he was able to get easy put backs and alley oops spoon-fed to him by Jason Kidd.
Perkins, Ibaka, Nazr Mohammed and Nick Collison will be essential to the Thunder's success. They need to fight for every rebound and not allow Dallas to have second-chance points or the opportunity to kick it out to open shooters.
The Dallas Mavericks have a luxury of having Jason Terry come off the bench for them. Jet is an elite three-point shooter and torched the Lakers the previous round. Dallas also has sharpshooter Peja Stojakovic at the small forward spot too.
The key to Dallas's success is their ability to find open three-point shooters. When Terry is in the game, I would put either Thabo Sefolosha or Westbrook on him, even James Harden.
Sefolosha is an elite defender and has the luxury of being three inches taller than Terry. He needs to truly lock Terry down and Peja to help guard the perimeter.
On Oklahoma City's side they have James Harden, who has been OKC's third best player these playoffs. Harden is a young Manu Ginobili and he is the Thunder's best passer. His ability to see plays before they happen is an asset to the Thunder offense.
When Westbrook and Harden are on the floor, the Thunder will often use Westbrook off the ball and have Harden initiate the offense and create. This is extremely effective and OKC should continue this.
The Thunder also have three-point shooter Daequan Cook coming off the bench. Cook is a high rate three-point gunner, and when he makes a couple of threes, it often gives the Thunder a huge boost.
The off the bench players will be a huge part of who wins this series.
Dallas has home court advantage in this series, which means Oklahoma City will need to split the first two games in order to have a chance. However, the Thunder are a different team once they come home.
Their arena in Oklahoma City is one of the loudest if not the loudest in the playoffs and all the fans are dressed in the same shirt, standing up and screaming for the duration of the game.
While the Thunder are young, I believe they have the talent and ability to win this series in seven games and advance to the NBA Finals.