These two are the key
Yowza. These two teams couldn't have gone through two more contrasting series in the conference semifinals.
The Thunder got beat up battling Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol down low in the post in a matchup resembling a heavyweight title bout. The Mavericks were beat up—literally—through a few cheap shots at the hands of Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom.
The Mavericks effectively ended both a dynasty and one of the greatest coaching careers in history, while the Thunder ended a Cinderella story.
About the only similarity between the two series was that both teams closed out with a bang, blowing out their opponent to clinch a spot in the conference semifinals.
But enough looking backward, let's peer forward into my little crystal ball to see what's on tap (I'll prefer a Sam Adams Summer Ale if you're asking) for the Western Conference Finals. It should be a good one.
SERIES STUD: Dirk Nowitzki. I mean, it's gotta be right? I could have picked either Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook for this spot, but those two have the luxury of knowing that if one has an off night, the other can pick up the slack.
Who's picking up the slack for Dirk if he has an off night? Jason Kidd? Shawn Marion? Jason Terry, the Sixth Man who thinks he's an All-Star? (Note: I know Terry shot 9-10 from behind the arc in the closeout game against the Lakers. That's not happening again). I just don't see anyone taking over a shift if Dirk cashes out for a game.
If the Marc Cubans have any chance at winning, Dirk has to be the guy to carry them. We know Dirk is capable, as he practically took a team on his back to the brink of an NBA championship in 2006 until the referees handed the title to the Miami Heat.
He has a toolbox full of offensive moves. He is one of the game's best shooters, he can post up, create in traffic and basically do whatever he wants on the offensive end.
So far in the 2011 Playoffs, Dirk has averaged 26.5 PPG, 8.4 RPG and 2.8 APG. Those are pretty solid numbers. They have to be even better here.
I think they will. And it still may not be enough.
The Mavericks: This is a team that is high on heartbreak. Dirk and Jason Terry lost in the 2006 NBA Finals. Shawn Marion came close on multiple occasions with the Phoenix Suns, including the fateful series against the Spurs a few years back when A'mare Stoudemire was suspended for going onto the court during a scuffle. Jason Kidd lost back to back finals with the Nets, and Peja Stojakovic was on the 2002 Sacramento Kings team that was screwed by the refs in Game 6 against the Lakers.
Can this team get over its demons? Or will it be unable to rise to the occasion and chase another title?
The Thunder are not the Lakers. I never saw the Lakers getting back to the NBA Finals. Kobe's legs are giving out, Bynum is not as good as advertised and the bench was weak. They could only go as far as Kobe could take them.
But the Thunder? Different story. I picked them to get to the Finals at the beginning of the season, and the Mavericks have to stop an intense, feisty and hungry team that sees the sky as their limit.
It all starts on the defensive end of the court. How will the Mavericks stop a potent OKC offense? Tyson Chandler will be effective on the boards if he can stay out of foul trouble, but if Westbrook and Durant are filling up the bucket his presence won't matter. Dirk isn't quick enough to guard Durant on the perimeter, and Jason Kidd hasn't played defense in years. The Thunder could put up a 110-point average in this series.
I think the Mavericks put Shawn Marion and Deshawn Stevenson on Durant and Westbrook, respectively. Does anyone out there think that will matter? Marion is not the defensive mastermind he was in his prime, and Stevenson is not capable of staying with Westbrook as he drives into the paint.
On the offensive end of the floor, the Mavs need to keep getting red-hot three-point shooting. In particular they need Jason Terry to continue playing the second superstar role. If he can do that, Dallas may be able to keep up with the rapid pace of scoring that the Thunder want in this series.
The Thunder: Similar to my concerns about Dallas' ability to stop Westbrook and Durant, OKC isn't going to stop the Germanator. Coach Scotty Brooks has to be wrestling with the decision of either stopping Dirk or letting him have his way. By the way, how can a grown man still go by Scotty? I know Pippen did it, but anyone still using a "y" at the end of their name better be under the age of 14. It undermines his credibility.
In my opinion, the Thunder's best defensive option is to guard Dirk one-on-one and try and force him into the post. As far as who the Thunder use to cover Dirk, I'm not really sure. Thabo Sefolosha may be the best option. Part of me wants Serge Ibaka on him, but I also don't want to see him rack up foul after foul. He's better served roaming the court.
If you can get someone to limit Dirk in a one-on-one battle, you can focus on stopping the other four guys when they have the ball. I want my perimeter defenders closing passing lanes and putting pressure on Terry and Stojakovic. Jason Kidd is the world's worst three-point shooter that is considered a good three-point shooter. And Shawn Marion can't shoot a jumper to save his life. Let them jack up shots all day.
We all know about Durant and Westbrook, but what impressed me the most about the Thunder in the Grizzlies series is the quality minutes they received from their bench. James Harden really stepped up and started playing like the third overall pick he is. Daequan Cook came in at times and offered a spurt of offense with three-point shooting. Eric Maynor has proved a very cerebral, capable backup for Russell Westbrook, and I even saw him playing point at times when Westbrook was playing the off-guard role. Finally, Nick Collison provided some much needed post presence off the bench when Ibaka or Perkins got in foul trouble.
This team has proven that it's not just about Westbrook and Durant. They are the definition of a team that is young and hungry. They are young, but they did not crumble in either of the first two series. They won't back down here either.
Prediction: Dirk is going to go down as one of the best players in league history. Unfortunately, as time goes on, the clock keeps ticking on his window to win a championship.
I think think the Thunder learned a lot from their seven games with the Grizzlies. Dirk may want it more, but I'm concerned about the rest of the team's ability to keep things going. My guess is that the studly German follows the paths of Malone and Stockton and continues to seek a title.
To me, whoever wins this series is the team that comes up with a better defensive scheme. Ultimately, I think OKC's one-two punch proves to be too much for the Mavericks. The Young Guns move on in thunderous fashion in an exciting series. Thunder in 7.